What Maisie Knew
Produced by Red Crown Productions
Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Screenplay by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright
Distributed by Millennium Entertainment
Some people should not have children. This is one way to read Henry James’s 1897 novel What Maisie Knew. Another way, the way James preferred, is to marvel at his exquisite rendering of a child’s untutored sensibility dimly awakening to the world’s various treacheries. James didn’t preach. His game was hunting mental states in the private preserve he fenced round with his elaborately constructed syntax and endlessly subtle observations.
Maisie is another of James’s experiments in narrative point of view. Could he, he wondered, tell a story of adult irresponsibility through the perceptions of Maisie (Onata Aprile) a young girl between the ages of six and early adolescence?
The resulting novel is distinguished by an ingeniously feline narration that at times seems to take pleasure in toying with the eponymous heroine’s ordeal as a daughter of divorced parents. In the Preface to the novel, James discusses how he came upon the kernel of his story. An acquaintance had told him of a separated couple who first used their daughter as an instrument of revenge, each claiming sole possession of the child, and then, after marrying new partners, strove to disown her. Notice in the excerpt below how Maisie’s real-life progenitor becomes an “it” in James’s account:
Whereas each of these persons had at first vindictively desired to keep it [the child] from the other, so at present the re-married relative sought now rather to be rid of it—that is to leave it as much as possible . . . on the hands of the adversary; which malpractice, resented by the latter as bad faith, would of course be repaid and avenged by an equal treachery. The wretched infant was thus to find itself practically disowned, rebounding from racquet to racquet like a tennis-ball or a shuttlecock.
James’s use of the impersonal pronoun and the tennis metaphor signals a special kind of heartlessness. He goes on to discuss the pleasure he had in working out the ironic intricacies of his plot. It has been 40 years since I first read this novel, and as I read the Preface again, I was surprised to find myself growing increasingly irritated. I should not have been. Forty years ago, I didn’t yet have children. As a consequence, James’s words didn’t affect me as they do today. It’s the rare mother or father who can take delight in irony exacted at a child’s expense. Having no children of his own, James was evidently untroubled by this cost. His complacency on this count gives his thoughts a monstrous aspect.
For James, Maisie was primarily a lens through which to satirize parents who are so self-absorbed that they haven’t an inkling of how horrid they are. Nor, of course, does Maisie. She instinctively trusts them no matter what they do. She pushes away whatever moments of doubt arise for the simple reason that she cannot afford to have them. Should she express any reservations about their conduct, she instinctively fears she would drive them away. Her innocence achieves a special poignancy, to which James adds, with a snuffling chuckle, a dose of icy irony.
I don’t know what prompted directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel to adapt the novel to the screen, but whatever it was, it’s a relief to report that they refrained from wielding the irony James found so amusing. They have transposed his premise to contemporary Manhattan. As you would suppose, the film’s reworking of the tale leaves only a shadow of the original. Nevertheless, as a portrayal of absentminded parental cruelty, it delivers the goods.
The parents in the story, Susanna (Julianne Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan), perfectly exemplify the sort of people who have never gotten over themselves. Now in their late 40’s, they’re still smitten with their own importance, so much so that they’re oblivious to the harm they’re inflicting on their only child. Susanna is an aging rock star who is determined to regain her former glory; Beale, a contemporary art dealer who chatters incessantly on his cellphone in pursuit of the next big deal. We don’t learn much about their respective careers other than that their dedication to advancing themselves in their chosen trades has somehow curdled their relationship. Although they have never married, they managed, six years before the action of the film, to beget Maisie, whom they both profess to “love to pieces.” This is the idiom used by those who want to prove the sincerity of feelings they’ve never experienced. Of course, neither has a clue as how to nurture the girl.
Meals are a special challenge. As they plan to dine out one night, they belatedly think to order pizza for Maisie and her au pair, Margo (Joanna Vanderham). On another evening, Susanna celebrates Maisie’s birthday with fast food and a “cake” she’s sloppily constructed from Hostess Twinkies and cupcakes, over which she slathers Reddi-wip, which causes the confection to slide apart. For his part, Beale takes care to heft his heavy-duty espresso maker into his new apartment after leaving Susanna, yet he can’t be bothered to prepare his visiting daughter breakfast.
Meanwhile, Susanna and Beale bicker constantly in earshot of the girl, eloquently expressing their mutual scorn with vulgarities. Maisie listens in abject silence to their abuse, rarely lifting her eyes in their direction. She’s become skilled at feigning inattention, but we can see she doesn’t miss a word of her parents’ ferocious squabbling.
All in all, it’s a pitiable existence, made all the more so by the parents’ assumption that they’re doing all that is needed for their child.
Once apart, Susanna and Beale scramble to keep custody of Maisie. Beale marries Margo; Susanna, a mild-mannered bartender unaccountably named Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård). The hasty marriages are clearly stratagems in the war Maisie’s parents continue to wage with each other. Each claims to want Maisie, but both are so distracted that they often can’t remember when or where they’re supposed to pick her up, whether from her school or her friends’ apartments. Soon, they delegate responsibility for Maisie’s racquet-to-racquet existence to their new spouses. Susanna, thoughtless as ever, even confides to her daughter that she married Lincoln for just this service.
The final blows come predictably. Beale decides he must relocate to London to carry on his business. He asks Maisie if she would like to come with him. She asks if Mommy will come also, obviously not grasping the finer principles of a couple splitting up. Well, no, Beale replies. And, come to think of it, he goes on, the weather there is cold and rainy most of the time. You don’t like cold weather, do you? In no time at all and in front of the child he loves to pieces, he’s talked himself into leaving Maisie behind in the care of Susanna or Margo or whoever is handy. And so it’s off to the airport, while Maisie watches his disappearing taxi in mute disbelief.
Next, Susanna starts stealing for the door. Though her well-etched face screams has-been, she decides to go on a quixotic cross-country concert tour to revive her flagging fortunes. Maisie, of course, wouldn’t fit in on the tour bus, what with Susanna’s dissolute bandmates always drinking and smoking pot.
It’s left to the new spouses to take over the abandoned child, which they do charitably enough, even creating a new family of sorts by starting a romance of their own. This turnabout is brisk even by Manhattan standards. While it’s warranted by the novel, James didn’t dare to rush matters so. Still, Maisie seems to see something to hold on to in the warming relationship between Margo and Lincoln. Seems is the operative word here, however.
The film’s performances are all excellent. As Susanna, Julianne Moore unselfishly portrays a pathologically selfish mother who puts her career and dream of perpetual youth well above her child’s needs. Moore has done nothing to disguise her 53 years. The mascara that encircles her eyes and the tattoos sleeving her arms have nothing to do with youth and everything with desperation. Coogan’s Beale has the haggard, agitated look of a man keen to escape what he deems a hopeless situation. As Margo, the 21-year-old Joanna Vanderham plays a woman who seriously misjudges her ability to hold a man more than twice her age. Alexander Skarsgård, the fourth corner of this squalid rectangle, plays Lincoln as the quintessential nice guy, a weak-willed schlub who belatedly awakens to how Susanna has been using him.
Finally, it’s the performance—if it’s a performance at all—of six-year-old Aprile that makes the film work. As the narrative’s point of view, she is in every scene, quietly reacting to the adults around her, often by seeming not to react at all. Poised and unaffected, her genuine innocence holds the film together through the drama’s tossing sea of guile and self-delusion. Her Maisie comes to know far more than any child her age should. Not that she’s alone. Such knowledge is all but common in our age of childlike adults.