A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
On the second page of What Maisie Knew, Henry James' 1897 novel about the divorce of two wretchedly selfish people and the effect it has on their young daughter Maisie, an acquaintance expresses sympathy for the girl. "The words were an epitaph for the tomb of Maisie's childhood," James writes, and the novel's events go downhill from there. James didn't pull his punches, and (except for occasionally) neither does the modern-day film of this tale, co-directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel.
"What Maisie Knew," set in contemporary Manhattan, follows the events in question through the eyes of a 6-year-old girl (Onata Aprile) as she tries to interpret the often-incomprehensible behavior of adults who use her as a pawn in the war they are waging against each other. The story is harrowing in its depiction of an almost-casual loss of innocence. Henry James' book was told entirely from Maisie's point of view, and the film is courageous enough to attempt the same thing. When connecting links are lost, when a collage of images takes the place of exposition, it is because a 6-year-old girl is our guide. The result is a painful and often infuriating film, with a sense of unnamed terror flickering on the periphery: What effect will these events have on Maisie as she grows up? Does anyone care?
Maisie lives with her parents in a beautiful Tribeca apartment. Her mother Susanna (Julianne Moore) is a rock star, working on a new album, and her father Beale (Steve Coogan) is a businessman, always on his cell phone. Their vicious arguments are constant background noise in Maisie's life, and she is shown coloring in her room or playing with her toy horses as the sounds of parental hatred ricochet up through the floorboards. It might as well be traffic outside for all Maisie reacts to it. Divorce is clearly inevitable with these two, but it is once they separate that the combat really begins.
Maisie's sweet nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) is suddenly ensconced at her father's new apartment, ostensibly to keep taking care of Maisie, but really because she has entered into a romantic relationship with Beale. There's a sickening sense in these scenes of adults trying to "get away with something" in front of a child. Maisie's father, brilliantly played by Coogan as a nasty piece of work, couldn't care less. Maisie is irrelevant to him, except as a means of getting back at his ex-wife.