What Maisie Knew (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Thomas Doherty

Produced by William Teitler, Charles Weinstock, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, and Daniel Crown; directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel; screenplay by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright, based on the novel by Henry James; cinematography by Giles Nuttgens; production design by Kelly McGehee; edited by Madeleine Gavin; music by Nick Urata; starring Onata Aprile, Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgard, Joanna Vanderham, and Steve Coogan. Color, 98 min., a Millennium Entertainment release.

Howard Hawks always said that a lousy book could make a great movie and vice versa—in fact, more often than not, a great book resulted in a lousy movie. To test the hypothesis, he bet his hunting partner Ernest Hemingway that he could make a passable film out of what they both agreed was his worst book, To Have and Have Not.Hawks, of course, won the wager. (A more faithful version of Hemingway's misfire resulted in another terrific film, the underrated Michael Curtiz adaptation, The Breaking Point [1950].)

What Maisie Knew isn’t Henry James’s worst novel—he probably doesn't have a worst novel—but it has occupied a space on the literary mantel below the centerpiece placement accorded The AmbassadorsThe Golden Bowl, and The Portrait of a Lady, which, come to think of it, have themselves all gotten well-regarded, period-faithful screen treatments. James’s heartbreaking tale of a child beset and abandoned has also failed to garner the screen popularity given the twice adapted Washington Square—first as The Heiress (1949), then under its own name in 1997—or the oft-adapted novella The Turn of the Screw, realized most memorably as The Innocents (1961). The omission is now remedied in a formally restrained and finely textured update that would make the Anglophilic American proud. Directed by the New York-based filmmaking team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel (Suture [1993]; The Deep End [2001]), and written by Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne, What Maisie Knew is a mesmerizing and deeply moving family melodrama focused on the true casualty of the divorce wars.

Originally published in 1897, set in horse-drawn-carriage propelled London and allegedly, as they did not say then, inspired by actual events (James’s sympathetic identification with a young girl caught in the maelstrom of a nasty divorce), the source novel is the usual Jamesian brew of psychological probing, mannered repression, and hard-to-read emotions acted out in well-dusted drawing rooms and perfectly manicured greens. Maisie, the focal point and narrative lens, is the polar opposite of the manipulative bad seeds in The Turn of the Screw, a Wordsworthian vision of childhood innocence crossed with a Dickensian faith in the fortitude of the very young to survive the toxic fumes given off by their elders. Though spawned by shallow, venal, narcissistic adults, she is impervious to the moral corruption and casual cruelty around her. A personality in embryo, she may not yet have developed a refined sensibility and exquisite table manners, but she is already nobler than the upper-crust swells and corseted ladies that clutter her Jamesian milieu.

This coolly confident and warmhearted update transports the action in time and space to the prime real estate of contemporary New York city, a privileged world replete with plush apartments, progressive private schools, and solicitous doormen. Had Luhrmann presumed to fast-forward The Great Gatsby to the disco Seventies, the literary elite would have rioted outside the multiplexes, but an update here seems totally appropriate. Despite James’s immersion in the intricately coded indexes of Victorian London, the spine of What Maisie Knew is the perspective of the child, not the time stamp on the set design.

The gloriously un-Botoxed Julianne Moore plays Susanna, a Chrissie Hynde-like front woman for a New Wave band, a rock diva past her prime glimpsed in vintage MTV videos. Steve Coogan is Beale, her soon-to-be ex, some kind of high-octane businessman really married to his smartphone. If Susanna is a self-involved drama queen, Beale is a slicker, colder operator, not as overtly hissable or prone to hysterics, but in the end more despicable. Coogan’s patented British smarm takes on subtler, more sinister hues here: He is not a cartoon cad but a very real bad father. Both are frightful parents, not physically abusive but emotionally unfit. (Perhaps the evenly proportioned male/female percentages in the creative quartet maintained a balance in doling out audience antipathy at each gender.) One might say Beale and Susanna were the kind of couple that should not be allowed to breed had not the spawn of their union been so adorable, sensitive, and stoic. Were these recessive traits that skipped a generation?

Maisie and her mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), a one-time New Wave rock diva

Maisie and her mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), a one-time New Wave rock diva

In fin-de-siècle London, divorce was a disgrace, a breach of the bonds that held a rigid patriarchal society together and, as such, a manifest threat to social stability and gender norms. In early twenty-first-century New York, divorce is a legal proceeding with no more stigma than a parking ticket, though the courtroom machinations are more expensive. Not the condo, not the car, not objets d’art—the sole piece of disputed property is six-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile), a bauble who is fought over in a literal sense: She’s a bone of contention and she’s a mute witness to the squabbles of the monsters towering over her. (“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,” wrote James.) As she ping-pongs from parent to parent, stepparent to stepparent, her eyes seem to take in everything, but how much she understands and how much is beyond her comprehension is no easier to decipher in the film than on the page. What is going on in that little head of hers? What exactly is it that Maisie knows?

An opening vignette featuring Susanna sweetly singing a lullaby to Maisie gives the impression of maternal nurturing, but Margo (Joanna Vanderham), Maisie’s pretty Australian governess, emerges as the real caregiver, evincing a parental ease with the girl that neither Mom nor Dad can seem to muster. As Susanna and Beale bicker in the background, Margo and Maisie greet the pizza delivery man, Maisie reaching into the tip jar, enacting an oft-repeated ritual: This is a family that does not sit down together for a home-cooked dinner from Mom.

Compromising our identification with Margo’s serene nurturing is the emergent fact that she has been sleeping with the man of the house, a relationship we apprehend when Maisie spots the two huddled together at the courthouse. Later, when Dad splits to find a new home for his cappuccino maker, Margo greets Maisie at the door of Beale's new apartment. She has the decency to be embarrassed.

Not to be outdone by Beale and Margo, Susanna also marries below her class. Her boy-toy Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) is the anti-Coogan—a tall, scruffy, handsome, and good-natured bartender. As the four parents, birth and step, jostle for position and orbit around Maisie, it is Beale and Susanna who behave abominably. Father tosses into the trash a bouquet of flowers Susanna sends Maisie; Mother confesses to Maisie that she wed Lincoln mainly to play the stable married card with the divorce courts. (James, again, in an appropriate cinematic metaphor: “She was taken into the confidence of passions on which she fixed just the stare she might have had for images bounding across the wall in the slide of a magic-lantern.”)

Lincoln’s initially tentative, soon easygoing assumption of fatherhood is the emotional spine of the film. Sent to pick up Maisie from school, he tries to escort her against the traffic light. Maisie points out the “don’t walk” sign and takes his hand. By the time they get to the other side of the street, the tyke has imprinted on him like a duckling and the feeling is mutual. She introduces the handsome specimen of Daddy-ness to her show-and-tell class. She uses his limbs as monkey bars. They play peek-a-boo on the street. With Margo in tow, the threesome, now looking like a family unit, visit the turtle pond in Central Park. Mercifully, no pop-song musical montage accompanies the bonding scenes. Later, when Margo asks Maisie if she likes Lincoln, the girl corrects her matter-of-factly: “I love him,” she says, the first and only time the word registers in the film. Naturally, Susanna is threatened by the bond forged between Lincoln and Maisie. When Maisie proudly reads a self-composed story, Lincoln beams with paternal pride and Susanna sputters, “Where am I in all this?”

The weight of the film is born on the pint-sized shoulders of six-year-old Onata Aprile, a brunette pixie framed by bangs and waves of long hair. The typical Hollywood actor-child is a precocious brat, worldly wise where her elders are dense, poised where they are frazzled, a cutesy automaton conjured from the mind of a screenwriter who never seems to have encountered a real kid. Knowing that casting was crucial, screenwriters Cartwright and Doyne worried about inflicting “a tiny monster upon the world under the banner of Henry James.” No need to have worried: Maisie/Onata is that rarest of things in American cinema—an authentic child, taking it all in, not verbally facile or precociously hip, looking for cures from an adult world that isn’t giving any.

When Dad lets go of his end of the rope in the tug of war and leaves for England (he breaks the news to Maisie over breakfast at a restaurant, treating her like a disposable girlfriend so she won’t make a scene during the kiss-off), and Mom goes on the road with her band, Margo and Lincoln, by then estranged from their respective mates, assume stewardship over the abandoned child. At a bucolic beach house on Long Island, they make pancakes, play Monopoly, and build sandcastles that are also metaphorical.

The idyll cannot last. Inevitably, Susanna drives up in her tour bus to wrench Maisie away from what have become her real parents. Maisie flinches at her approach and, at last, voices her desire: to stay at the beach house and go fishing with Lincoln. Susanna, to her great credit, recognizes what she has done and what she has become. At least for the moment, she does what all great screen Moms, from Stella Dallas onward, must do: give up her daughter for the sake of her daughter’s happiness. (In the James version, Maisie is spirited away from the loving but morally flawed ex-husband of her mother by a frumpy governess to live a less emotionally fraught and a morally upright Victorian life.)

Throughout, What Maisie Knew maintains a low buzz of tension and imminent peril, a terrible anxiety that something dreadful is going to happen to this poor little girl, neglected and unsupervised in the big bad city. In one scene, Maisie is dumped by Susanna at the restaurant of her bartender husband, unaware he is off that night. The staff takes her under their wing as a groggy Maisie waits all night, until the restaurant closes, and one of the waitresses takes the sleeping girl home for the night. She wakes up in the unfamiliar surroundings disoriented and frightened, but Maisie is not threatened by the strangers around her or the cross-street traffic in Manhattan; the dangers are closer to home. While fretting over Maisie’s safety, I found myself thinking of Leo McCarey’s classic three-hankie melodrama Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), when the vulnerable old couple goes into New York and you brace for a disaster to befall the sweet and vulnerable geriatrics, only to watch as the couple finds an instant sympathy and affectionate welcome from the strangers in the metropolis, a warmth that their own children withhold from them.)

In a foreword to the new Penguin edition of What Maisie Knew—featuring the poster picture of doe-eyed Onata Aprile staring into the camera, bookended by Julianne Moore and Alexander Skarsgård—screenwriters Cartwright and Doyne discuss the eighteen-year effort to bring their adaptation of the James novel to the screen. Taking James’s child’s point of view as their own vantage, (“the very principle of Maisie’s appeal, her undestroyed freshness, in other words that vivacity of intelligence by which she indeed does vibrate in the infected air, indeed does flourish in her immoral world”), the writers sought to remain faithful to the core of James’s conceit—an unrelenting focus on Maisie “as the lens through which we experience the bewildering chaos of adult life.” In the grammar of cinema and the outlook on the action, the film follows the child’s eye view of life, a low-angle perspective on reality that may not always understand what it sees.

It is difficult to think of a child-centric film that has been more affecting and less cloying than What Maisie Knew. In one wrenching scene, when Susanna assumes her maternal prerogative and rips Maisie from Lincoln’s arms, he shouts at his own soon-to-be-ex, “You don't deserve her!” In the theater, a guy behind me—who, frankly, did not look like the target demo for this sort of thing—muttered what every member of the audience was thinking: “That's for sure.”

Thomas Doherty, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University, is the author, most recently Hitler and Hollywood, 1933–1939.

Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4