By Jacob Mertens.
“It was to be the fate of this patient little girl to see much more than, at first, she understood, but also, even at first, to understand much more than any little girl, however patient, had perhaps ever understood before. Only a drummer-boy in a ballad or a story could have been so in the thick of the fight.”
Henry James (What Maisie Knew – 1897)
Much has changed since Henry James first wrote What Maisie Knew, now over a century ago. At times, the novel dates itself with antiquated bursts of formal language, but the soul of the story endures. Therein, the need of a child to be nurtured into adulthood, and the tragic consequences that follow acrimony between separated spouses, can be seen as a perennial theme. And so, we find Scott McGehee and David Seigel’s feature film of the same name take the barest bones of James’ story and transform it into a modern telling. In the film’s world, the only the name that remains unchanged is the protagonist Maisie (Onata Aprile), a 6-year-old girl whose fixed gaze dictates the way viewers engage with the material. The mother and father are different people with different names, their respective rebound spouses are changed as well, and parental neglect takes on new forms appropriate to the times.
The film follows Maisie through episodic memories, seen in abbreviated form and accentuated with dissolves to black, as her parents come to the end of a bitter custody battle. Maisie’s mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), and father, Beale (Steve Coogan), hurl vile insults at each other within earshot of their child, failing to notice the girl even as she approaches to ask for money to pay for a pizza delivery. The parents have little in common save for a shared grudge against each other—Susanna is an aged musician swiftly moving past her prime and Beale is a businessman glued to his cellphone and constantly away on trips. Seen as equally fit (or unfit) to care for Maisie, a judge awards the parents shared custody, ensuring a highly dysfunctional power struggle between them.
As time goes by, Beale marries Maisie’s nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), seemingly in an attempt to wrest his child away from Susanna, while taking joy in her anger and bewilderment. Susanna responds in kind by marrying Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), a young directionless bartender, in a sham union made to match Beale’s reformed family and stay in contention as Maisie’s caregiver. Despite these manipulative orchestrations, little concern is ever given to the quality of Maisie’s upbringing and she moves through the film more a burden to her parents’ petulant notions of freedom than as the cherished daughter they insist she is. When Maisie stays with her mother, she lies in bed at night listening to the thrum of the stereo shake her walls, as Susanne entertains guests until the early hours. When Maisie stays with her father, he is hardly ever there and leaves her with Margo as an afterthought.
In a deft move, the screenwriters use Maisie’s step-parents as a source of comfort and support, a nurturing presence soon at odds with Beale and Susanna’s corrosive influence. Susanna resents Lincoln’s attempts to bond with her daughter and lashes out, though she is content to leave her with him as she pursues fleeting stardom with the blind temper of an addict. Later on, Margo breaks down outside of her apartment as Lincoln attempts to drop Maisie off—she is locked out and cannot be let in by the building because her new husband has not added her to the lease. Margo interprets this gesture as a lack of affection and comes to believe she is nothing more to Beale than a tool used to destroy his ex-wife. She rages at Lincoln, but the two have too much in common to be enemies. They are both pawns in a divorce that leaves little room for kindness.
Margo and Lincoln begin to work together, bending their schedules to care for Maisie while her own parents remain negligent. But the two have little control over Maisie’s care, and less by the minute as they find themselves attracted to each other and increasingly unhappy with their respective marriages. The film lingers in this limbo, and challenges the peace found in Maisie’s extemporaneous family with the knowledge that as soon as Margo and Lincoln leave their spouses, they will vanish from the girl’s life. Naturally, the audience yearns for time to still, and for a while it does, but even Maisie must know that this is an unstable amity that will end soon enough.
It is to the film’s credit that I found myself outraged at times by the behavior of fictional characters. Julianne Moore, in particular, made my skin crawl. And in part it was because of her convincing performance, emoting a fearlessly wretched creature, but it had more to do with the sheer plausibility of Susanna as a person. I could see the twisted love she gave to her daughter as something real, a bond that remains vital though it has been forsaken for the want of a convenient life. And when Maisie becomes afraid of her mother, after she leaves her daughter without a guardian to look after her, Susanna can see it in the child and instantly recalls the moment she came into the world. The scene is both chilling and cathartic, though the revelation leaves What Maisie Knew with nowhere to go. However, by this point, the direction of the film does not matter. Maisie stays impossibly a child, still caught in a fight she has no business being in, and still holding on to a family that cannot rightfully exist. If there was any mercy in life, time would stand still—and in a film it can. But the shadows the film casts to the future make an empty victory of its arresting ending, and more the shame for it.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.