Those looking to "What Maisie Knew" for their Merchant-Ivory fix may be disappointed, but only because characters don't descend from carriages, or lofty social heights. They live, instead, in a very now New York. But what directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel ("The Deep End") have done -- aided by two screenwriting Cinderellas named Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne -- is deliver the somewhat contentious Henry James novel (Edmund Wilson loved it, Vladimir Nabokov hated it) in a change of clothes and with its soul intact. The contribution of young Onata Aprile to all this cannot be overstated, but what's beneath her feet is both solid and buoyant.
Susanna (Julianne Moore) is a fading rock star of limited maternal gifts who uses her young daughter, Maisie (Aprile), in a war of attrition with husband Beale (Steve Coogan). Beale wins custody of Maisie in the eventual divorce decree, but he's not much better than his ex -- he shuttles around the world with little care for Maisie's well-being; both parents are essentially missing in action. Beale quickly marries Maisie's nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), largely to have somewhere to park his daughter. Susanna marries the scruffy Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), who turns out to be a character of surprising, touching depth, and caring.
It's a mess, but through Maisie's point of view, and Aprile's touching and precocious performance, it becomes far more than just domestic rancor; Aprile makes it palatable, even magical. Adult delinquency is what it is, but as seen at Maisie's eye level -- and sometimes just within her earshot -- adults become even more ridiculous than usual. And while Maisie may not be quite as anguished as we expect her to be, it also may be -- as the story has striven to tell us since 1897 -- that children are, sometimes, simply better people than their parents.
PLOT The divorce of dissolute parents, as seen through the eyes of their 6-year-old daughter.
BOTTOM LINE Mischievous updating of the Henry James novel, made especially moving by young Onata Aprile