Film Review: What Maisie Knew

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What Maisie Knew | Directors Scott McGehee & David Siegel | Score: 6.7

Some timeless literary works are, in fact, not so timeless. And they can be extremely difficult to re-imagine for a modern world (the scandalous events of The Scarlet Letter wouldn’t so much as raise an eyebrow today), especially without losing the power and connection that made them so noteworthy to begin with. Henry James’ What Maisie Knew is, however, depressingly accommodating. A story about a young girl torn between her two, hopelessly selfish and callous parents amidst an ugly divorce battle, fits in almost unnoticeably from 1897, when it was first published, to the modern era.

Over the eons, history has proved a few incontrovertible facts about the human race, and one of them is certain people simply shouldn’t procreate. Sadly, the subjects for whom that rule best applies are the same ones seemingly least equipped to notice it. Their vanity is such that they would feel remiss in not re-creating smaller versions of themselves to reflect their eternal glory back upon them in miniaturized form.

Such is the fate of this modern-day Maisie (played with heartbreaking gumption by Onata Aprile), a sweet, sensitive little girl being raised in a stunning Manhattan apartment by a vengeful, egocentric aging rock-and-roll mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), and a pompous, charmingly callous art dealer father, Beale (Steve Coogan). Both parents are incredibly quick to foist Maisie off on whoever happens to be around, more often than not, her pretty young Scottish nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham). When the couple does break up one evening (Susanna changes the door locks by way of finalization), Maisie is shuttled endlessly back and forth between them, as they continue their incredibly self-serving lives.

Eventually, Beale marries Margo, and Susanna quickly follows suit, “marrying” the youthful and loose Lincoln (Alexsander Skarsgard) in an attempt to try and win the court’s favor, but neither parent can still stand to be a steady caregiver to their only child. Beale jets off on a moment’s notice to Europe on business, while Susanna plans a nationwide tour with her old band. It gets to a point where poor Maisie never knows where she’s going to wake up on a given morning — a depressing sequence that reaches its nadir when her mother drops her off from a taxi cab at the bar where Lincoln works without even bothering to check if he’s on that night (he’s not: the girl is taken home for the night by a sweet waitress).

Through it all, Maisie maintains her sweet-faced innocence, though there is definitely an implication that all of this boorish behavior is being dutifully recorded by the girl’s baleful eyes (in the novel, the eventual teenage Maisie decides she wants nothing to do with either of them). With both parents essentially cutting bait, Margo and Lincoln, now a couple themselves, take the girl in and spend an idyll at a beach house on the shore, providing her with the first truly warm and loving environment of her young life.

Despite the film’s obvious leanings, it takes pains to present the parents as more than one-dimensional monsters. Susanna, for all her anger issues and willingness to ignore her daughter, has moments of real love and clarity — you get the sense, as bad as she might be now, she’s monumentally better and more self-aware than she might have been during her rock heyday; while Beale, all British wit and charm, gives us a reason to understand why Maisie still dotes on him, even as he’s attempting to cut the cord with her and abandon the country.

The film works best as projections of Maisie’s own consciousness. There are scenes where she’s hard at work on a drawing project, or taken with the image of a trapped kite high amongst the power lines, while her parents are either fighting with each other, or hissing into their ever-present cell phones in the background.

Ultimately, what is most heartbreaking about the story is just how little control Maisie has over her tumultuous environment. Her parents are forever posing impossible questions to her, framing them as a decision she needs to make, and then just going ahead and doing whatever they fancy anyway. The time she spends with Margo and Lincoln is so precious because it’s the only time in the film that she simply gets to be a normal little girl, doted on by two loving parental figures whose idea of success is a day at the beach building elaborate sand castles and a game of Monopoly later that night. They aren’t rock stars or massively successful art dealers, but they realize the irreplaceable treasure that’s been placed into their care.

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Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success.  You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.

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