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'What Maisie Knew': Is the Kid Alright?

This twenty-first century Henry James update is too cute by half.

Courtesy of Millenium Entertainment

So the movie adaptation of What Maisie Knew has dropped the character of Mrs. Wix, but it does have Onata Aprile. Not that anyone should have settled for that enticing trade-off in making a picture based on the Henry James novel, published in 1897, and setting it in contemporary New York,

But what is the basis of this new film? And is “based on” any more reliable or helpful here than the assertion that Zero Dark Thirty or Compliance, say, were inspired by real events? Henry James had no children and no wives. Is that why he was drawn to write about young people and so stirred by the task? He was also concerned, at the end of the nineteenth century, by the prospect of what divorce was doing to children. So, as parents split and remarried, “the wretched infant was thus to find itself practically disowned, rebounding from racquet to racquet like a tennis ball or a shuttlecock.” (That’s James himself in his preface to Maisie.)

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century divorce in America rose by over 150 percent. There were at least 25,000 a year! James’s novel was set in London, where divorce had only been permitted to ordinary people by the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. In America now, and in New York, divorce rates have been falling a little lately (probably because marriage is in decline), but still there is the likelihood that about 45 percent of the audience for What Maisie Knew will have known a broken marriage. In Manhattan, the figure must be higher, for that is a city of private schools, nannies, and custody disputes, the material of the James novel.

Maisie is seven in the film (because that is the age of Onata Aprile, who plays the part). Her parents break up: Susanna and Beale—she is a rock star (in decline), played by Julianne Moore; he is a British businessman close to the skids, played by Steve Coogan. As Maisie divides her time between parents, the game of badminton is complicated by Dad marrying the nanny, Margo, while Susanna takes up with Lincoln, a tall, languid bartender.

Courtesy of Millenium Entertainment
Onata Aprile as Maisie and Julianne Moore as Susanna.

You are going to be told in many quarters that Onata Aprile is a fabulous actress. But you must not let that put you off. You will read such words as “cute,” “adorable,” and “lovable,” and there will likely be a movement to have her nominated for an Oscar. Do not be swayed. There is far more evidence that she is a natural than an actress, and no reason to insist that she grows up to be Meryl Streep. She photographs very well (as millions of children do), and she looks appealing just as photography casts the shade of glamour on nearly everything it beholds. So the story unfolds and the film is full of close-up reaction shots of Maisie (or Aprile) looking sad, wistful, brave, uncertain. She does not interact with the adults too much, except in shots where she is picked up and hugged by someone or other, in poses that perforce eliminate eye-to-eye contact. For it is the moral principle of the film that her two parents do not notice her so much as the way she is a prop to their self-regard.

The film is touching, filled with taste and care, but not enough to avoid being coy and sentimental. The directors are Scott McGehee and David Siegel, and they have a track record—Suture, The Deep EndUncertainty, Bee Seasonthat makes the failure of this film dismaying. In The Deep End especially they had a complex family situation in which a mom (Tilda Swinton) was pulled in all directions. The strength of that film lay in its steady refusal to deal in cliché or slick emotions, and in a vision that realizes everyone thinks he or she is the center of the universe, not in a way that deserves moral recrimination but as a part of human and social nature.

That is exactly what is missing from What Maisie Knew. Steve Coogan can be very funny, but I don’t think he’s quite an actor. That works fine here because his lack of dramatic personality can be read as part of Beale’s selfish emptiness, and his habit of using travel and the cell phone to avoid human relationship. Julianne Moore as Susannah is something else—like a witch (sometimes the audience gasps at her ugly behavior). She is a rock singer from trash city. Her looks are going and she uses bad makeup, worse temper, and tattoos to cover that up. Susannah probably thinks she is an artist, but the film has a propriety that doubts rock singers qualify in that category. Beale and Susannah are hopeless cases, and damaging parents. There’s no doubt that such parents exist, just as we have found no way of protecting their offspring.

So far, so true to James. But the film has a fatal instinct for neatness, the pattern in life that the children of broken homes are least inclined to trust. As the real parents prompt the stoic look on Onata’s wan face, we begin to see that Lincoln and Margo are honey bears, or like an infertile couple that deserves a child of their own. The actors in those roles are encouraged to be charming, just as Julianne Moore is on a ghastliness binge. Joanna Vanderham as Margo is Scots with an accent like lemon on an oyster (she had a Dutch father), and she is lovely as wheat in the sunlight. Alexander Skarsgard as Lincoln is tall, amiable, Nordic, and relaxed, with a kindness that would have turned Ingmar Bergman to stone.

But the magic about this couple is that they have nothing to do in life except look after our Maisie. He is a drifter going nowhere and she is a nanny without greater ambition. To the extent that we are in loco parentis with Maisie, I find their vacancy alarming and not conducive to good parenting. Beale may be a hapless businessman and Susannah a wreck of a rocker, but they are trying and thinking and lying to themselves—all the things that children need to observe in parental figures as they grow up.

I am not going to be accused of spoiling the story, but you can guess by now what’s going to happen, and if I tell you the film’s last shot is a telephoto view of Maisie, delighted and happy, you can write it yourself. The image is direct from a commercial for hot cocoa or teddy bears. Incidentally, Maisie’s childhood is surrounded by soft toys, old-fashioned games, and the nursery accoutrements that might have pleased Peter Pan and Wendy Darling. Whereas most seven-year-olds in Manhattan at this income level are into cell phones and iPads, the cuteness of Maisie is nostalgic for another age.

And there’s no Mrs. Wix—did you think I’d forgotten her? In the novel, Mrs. Wix is the governess—good-natured but rather foolish—who becomes the person Maisie recognizes as her best hope in life. James’s book carries Maisie into adolescence, always an awkward age, and it turns into a subtle account of what people know in life, and how much they choose to conceal what they know. Mrs. Wix, as the critic F.R. Leavis observed, is Dickensian in inspiration—she is like Peggoty in David Copperfield, not brilliant, not a rock singer, but decent and ordinary. Dickens and James could do such people. The trouble about the film of What Maisie Knew is that the characters have to be monsters or perfect. Yet as we have learned, broken homes can make imperfect and interesting people—also known as us.