Unfortunately, I have not yet read Henry James’ 1897 novel What Maisie Knew, though I am a fan of his work (I never fail to be freshly impressed by his novella The Turn of the Screw whenever I read it). I usually like to have read a book before seeing it adapted for the screen, so that I can judge the film from a more informed perspective. However, as I’m currently reading my way through all of Jane Austen’s writings for my course (among other things!) I haven’t been able to squeeze in What Maisie Knew and couldn’t resist watching the film. Please be aware that this review therefore comments solely on the film, and accept my apologies for any inaccuracies arising from my ignorance of the novel.
Thanks for reading!
The producers of the Oscar-nominated The Kids are All Right have created another realistic portrait of dysfunctional family life. The Kids are All Right’s focus on the family of same-sex parents Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) is followed by a tempestuous tale of another kind; one which takes its inspiration from Henry James’ fin-de-siècle novel What Maisie Knew.
Long-time directing partners David Siegel and Scott McGehee re-locate James’ text to modern-day New York, where the young Maisie (Onata Aprile) is enduring the aftermath of her parents’ (Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan) bitter divorce.
We pick the story up mid-custody battle, and Maisie is immediately established as the camera’s focus. Through her eyes we witness her cruelly ambitious parents – rock-star mother Susanna (Moore) and workaholic art dealer Beale (Coogan). A slow start flaunts exposed brick apartments, loud parties and questionable (but not explicitly condemned) parenting, drawing us slowly into Maisie’s life.
The film is less subtle in documenting Maisie and her classmates; here Siegel and McGehee’s adaptation is self-consciously cutesy, indulging in lingering shots of Maisie writing with a pencil as big as her arm. Such departures from Maisie’s perspective threaten to fracture the effectiveness of the technique; presentation of a moving field of vision as Maisie plays on a swing show us the world as she sees it, and encourages the consideration of events as she experiences them.
The story is thoroughly introspective, and we are never shown or told too much. Accordingly, months pass without clear indication, but the shifting dynamics between characters mean viewers’ understanding of the narrative is never hindered.
The passage of time is a concept which Maisie’s parents grasp inadequately. Despite having ruthlessly fought for custody of Maisie, both Beale and Susanna repeatedly shrug off the responsibility of actually caring for her. For instance, Susanna mistakenly believes that she can take off on tour for months and return on a whim to find Maisie exactly as she left her – but in the interim more responsible adults must fall into place as carers for Maisie, and of course it is natural that she develops affection for them.
The theme of shifting relationships also encompasses Susanna and Beale’s new spouses. Both shack up with new, younger partners, Beale marrying Maisie’s nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), and Susanna turning her attentions (however briefly) to shotgun-husband Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård). Both soon find themselves used as free-of-charge live-in childcare. Of course audiences will ache for Maisie’s disrupted childhood, but the unenviable positions of Margo and Lincoln are also likely to provoke sympathy. A climactic and crucial plot-turning scene occurs when Margo finally realises the falsity of her marriage to Beale. Modernisation of a Victorian novel necessarily brings with it drastically different attitudes to divorce compared to those felt in James’ lifetime, but this perhaps allows for the film’s detailed focus on the non-traditional surrogate families forged around Maisie.
The principal actors give committed performances as their respective characters, however unsavoury they may be. Coogan’s Beale is obviously horrible, but can be witty, and Moore is particularly unflinching in her portrayal of a supremely selfish mother, also giving a pretty convincing turn as a rock star. Thankfully, by the end of the film she seems to at least realise the magnitude and consequences of her neglectful parenting. Onata Aprile is utterly credible, despite depicting Maisie as a bafflingly forgiving child throughout.
Including raw, suppressed and unreadable emotion from the diverse group of characters, What Maisie Knew is a captivating watch, with only a few clumsy moments which can be forgiven far more easily than the sins of Maisie’s parents. This version of James’ story is a hopeful celebration of the resilience of an emotionally abused child. Maisie’s being handed from adult to adult is a continual motif, and in the final moments it’s a relief to see her in motion of a different kind; smiling gleefully as she runs like the most carefree of children, at least temporarily spared from the confusing and sporadic attentions of her birth parents.