Pity the adapter of middle or late Henry James. Most mainstream films these days traffic in melodrama, broad waves of emotion, whereas James is all ripples and barely perceptible crosscurrents. The momentous emotion is there, only rendered in such fine, exhaustive detail that no less than George Bernard Shaw shortchanged it in his review of James’s resoundingly booed stab at playwriting, Guy Domville. In defense of the play, Shaw wrote, “There is no reason why life as we find it in Mr. James’s novels—life, that is, in which passion is subordinate to intellect and to fastidious artistic taste—should not be represented on the stage.” But the characters’ passion manifests itself through their ideas. The trick is finding the strong dramatic beats in what might read like a murmur, and to streamline James without coarsening him.
There is, to be honest, a bit of coarsening in Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s modern version of What Maisie Knew, along with one omission about which I’m ambivalent. But the film is wrenching all the same, and subtle enough in its portrait of the four major grown-up characters to qualify as Jamesian. The story centers on little Maisie (Onata Aprile), for whom two frankly awful, narcissistic parents compete for custody — clearly less for the girl than for the pleasure of sticking it to each other.
How awful is awful? They tell themselves they love their daughter while proceeding to abandon her to a series of strangers — or nobody. Julianne Moore is Susanne, a fading rock singer with too-short skirts and too much mascara who’s given to heavy drinking and streams of expletives. Steve Coogan is Beale, a possibly shady art dealer (we never quite know) apt to jet to London, leaving Maisie behind in his apartment, and then be incommunicado. It’s good to see Moore let ‘er rip, and better to see the way she makes Susanne’s motherly instincts ebb and flow and suddenly vanish into a fog of childlike neediness that crowds out her daughter. Coogan has made a specialty — perhaps too much so — of prodigious jerks like Beale, but he has never anatomized the character like this. Amid the reflexive prevarications, a conscience flickers and then disappears into the trough of self-absorption.
Maisie’s reluctant guardians are the ex-couple’s respective new mates, the ex-nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) and the bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), neither of which is prepared to assume responsibility for a small child. They step in not because they’re saints but because to do otherwise would be inhuman. (This is James at his most Dickensian.) Vanderham (whom I’ve never seen before) and Skarsgård give delicately shaded performances. They don’t act, they react.
As Maisie, Aprile seems lit from within; a more vividly natural child actress I have trouble imagining. This Maisie is very young and very much on her own wavelength. She does not complain to or about her parents, keeping whatever grief she feels to herself. The question is indeed what Maisie knows. My quibble — small — is that the novel’s more filled-in Maisie has been replaced by a cloud of angel dust.
But this Maisie certainly suits McGehee and Siegel’s glancing touch. The framing of the parents is determinedly nonjudgmental, the cinematography by Giles Nuttgens as open and graceful as any I’ve seen all year. We make judgments, of course — harsh ones. But I found myself thinking not only of Maisie’s pain but of the loss, over time, of her precious spirit, of the impact on her future bonds — and eventually on her own children. I can’t bring myself to begrudge the movie’s ending, which is brighter than the novel’s, maybe too much so. I wanted to accept it for the sake of Maisie’s kids — and mine.