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In ‘What Maisie Knew,’ a child turns into a pawn



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Maisie Onata Aprile

Susanna Julianne Moore

Beale Steve Coogan

Lincoln Alexander Skarsgard

Margo Joanna Vanderham

Millennium Entertainment presents a film directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel. Written by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright, based on the novel by Henry James. Running time: 99 minutes. Rated R (for language). Opening Friday at Landmark Century and Evanston CineArts 6.

Updated: June 25, 2013 6:02AM

Here are a couple of life’s indisputable truths: Humans never co-existed with dinosaurs, let alone rode them like horses. Also, no one likes a sore loser.

Here’s another one: We can’t choose who our parents are. They adopt or breed (purposely or not), and that’s that — for better or worse.

Two of the lead characters in “What Maisie Knew,” a modern retelling of the Henry James novel published in 1897, are putrid examples of worse. Not Joan Crawford “no-wire-hangers” worse, but awful nonetheless.

While constantly professing love — and it seems genuine, if prompted by guilt — for their bright and sensitive 7-year-old daughter Maisie (played by an incredibly poised Onata Aprile), aging rock star Susanna (Julianne Moore) and prominent art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan) are so embroiled in and distracted by their own myriad issues that Maisie ends up trapped inside their dysfunctional sandwich.

“She was abandoned to her fate,” James wrote of his protagonist more than a century ago. “What was clear to any spectator was that the only link binding her to either parent was this lamentable fact of her being a ready vessel for bitterness, a deep little porcelain cup in which biting acids could be mixed.”

It’s an unfortunately familiar scenario, and has been since time immemorial, but watching it play out on the big screen is cause for cringing. You just want to pound some sense into these people. Or just pound them, period.

“You don’t know anyone except yourself,” says the blithely irresponsible Beale, who comes and goes as he pleases and is forever yapping on his cellphone about some deal or another, to drama queen Susanna in one of their many dust-ups heard and witnessed by Maisie. “You breed pain wherever you go.”

Where this pain comes from, however, is never fully revealed. Shattered ambition certainly plays a role, for Susanna is an archetype of the screwed-up rock star whose star isn’t nearly as bright as it once was.

As for the origin of Beale’s incorrigible self-centeredness, who knows? But it angers Susanna to no end, and rightly so. “Your dad is an ass----,” she tells Maisie. “He really is.”


Mercifully and heartbreakingly (for Maisie, on both counts), the couple decides to split up, and their enmity only worsens. Despite the gifts they shower on their daughter and their ongoing expressions of filial adoration, it’s apparent they’d both be better off without her. Deep down, they probably know that and don’t want to admit it. She’d certainly be better off without them.

Luckily, Maisie gains the love of two good-hearted and great-looking others (Alexander Skarsgard and Joanna Vanderham) who’ve also sustained damage after being lured into the asteroid-strewn orbit of Maisie’s selfish parents. It’s heartening, if a bit trite.

Still, it makes you wish life imitated art more often.

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