What a shame that Henry James’ novels can seem nearly impenetrable to modern readers. Though his own emotional life remains a mystery — and may have been so even to himself — his angle on the human psyche was as shrewd and merciless as his prose could be prolix. His novella “What Maisie Knew” is 116 years old, but in a smart new film adaptation, it feels totally of the moment.
Julianne Moore (or, as I like to call her, Acting Goddess) plays New York rocker Susanna. She’s losing some of her fan base but still rates a luxe tour bus when she goes on the road. Steve Coogan (or, as I like to call him, Alan Partridge) plays her husband, Beale. We first meet him largely off-screen, as one-half of the ongoing argument with Susanna that provides the unending soundtrack in their beautiful Manhattan condo.
Their marriage fails. They divorce and move on to other people. Their seven-year-old daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile) watches it all with a solemnity and the kind of innocent endurance that keeps her from becoming collateral damage, despite her parents’ best attempts to use her as a weapon in their war.
In outline, this isn’t an especially exciting story. Upscale, driven, successful spouses bicker to the breaking point, and their child gets caught in the middle. But as with, say, “Kramer vs. Kramer,” sharp acting and skillful direction can make something familiar seem fresh. So does the material’s child’s-eye point of view. As Moore and Coogan (in an admirable change of pace from his typically comic roles) throw barbs at each other, two supporting players emerge and take the foreground.
One is the exes’ lovely Scottish nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), who, it turns out — awkward! — is Beale’s new girlfriend. Then there’s Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård of “True Blood”), a bartender who goes from being a boy-toy to becoming Susanna’s new husband. (He seems as surprised as everyone else by this sudden occurrence.) The two spend much of their time cleaning up after their self-centered partners’ messes (forgetting to pick up Maisie after work or failing to show up for court-appointed custody weekends). And they start to resemble the sort of caring parental figures the girl could really use in her corner.
As I said, the story is slight. But the performances sell it. Skarsgård has a really charming rapport with young Aprile, who’s making her screen debut and was sensitively directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel (“Suture” and “The Deep End”). But as often happens, Moore is the onscreen person you can’t take your eyes off of, even when she’s not trying to be showy. When her accidentally monstrous character finally gets a glimpse of how her own child has come to view her, it’s a devastating moment. And a really satisfying one.
“What Maisie Knew.” With Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård, Steve Coogan, Onata Aprile. Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel. Rated R. 98 minutes. At AMC Phipps Plaza, AMC Barrett Commons and AMC Mansell Crossing.