The domestic drama "What Maisie Knew" is a fresh, emotionally raw and entirely modern movie about divorce and its impact on the children so never mind that its source material is late Victorian.
Adapted from a Henry James novel published in 1897, this drama centers on a sweet 7-year-old Manhattan girl named Maisie (played by newcomer Onata Aprile). She plays with her toys, or eats pizza with her young nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), while in the next room her parents rock star Susanna (Julianne Moore) and art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan) yell horrible things at each other.
Soon, Susanna and Beale are divorced, with the judge ordering joint custody, so Maisie is shuttled from one to the other every 10 days. She is surprised to find Margo living in her father's apartment, which is the first time the audience is clued into the affair that prompted the divorce.
Soon, Beale and Margo are married a move, we discover, is more about Beale ingratiating himself with the judge than a display of true love. Susanna counters by marrying a nice-but-dim bartender, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), to watch Maisie when Susanna goes on tour. Almost by default, Margo and Lincoln become better caretakers of Maisie than her biological parents.
The directing team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel ("The Deep End," "Bee Season") unfold this divorce saga subtly, revealing the problems of Maisie's parents and guardians only as Maisie herself becomes aware of them. With a sharp and sensitive screenplay by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright, the movie carefully dissects the ways the adults talk about what's best for this little girl but then fail to provide it.
The adult cast is strong. Moore's ferocity and Coogan's inner cad fight it out for top billing. Meanwhile, Skarsgard gets to play the laid-back good guy for a change, while Vanderham makes an impressive debut as the well-meaning nanny caught up in Beale's selfishness.
The revelation of "What Maisie Knew," however, is Maisie. Onata Aprile is never showy and always authentic, a rare find in a child actor. In fact, she is one of the most self-possessed actors I've seen of any age. Aprile's eyes see everything, and her smile yes, she does have occasion to show it is a powerful reminder that children are resilient no matter what awful things the grown-ups in their lives do.
'What Maisie Knew'
A modern twist on a Victorian novel, this divorce drama is smart, sensitive and emotionally charged.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, May 31
Rating • R for some language.
Running time • 99 minutes