Published by Douglas Messerli, the World Cinema Review features full-length reviews on film from the beginning of the industry to the present day, but the primary focus is on films of intelligence and cinematic quality, with an eye to exposing its readers to the best works in international film history.
Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright (screenplay,
based on the novel by Henry James), Scott McGehee and David Siegel (directors) What Maisie Knew / 2012
Dually directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel,
the 2012 adaptation of Henry James 1897 novel—which I loved so much that I once
planned to reprint it in my Sun & Moon Classics series—What Maisie Knew updates the time to the present in lower Manhattan
and simplifies James’ far more intricate text.
married couple heading for divorce in this case is a likeable art-dealer, Beale
(Steve Coogan) and his angry, ex-rock singer wife, Susanna (Julianne Moore).
Together they argue endlessly, sometimes attempting to involve their six-year
old daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile), at other times attempting to protect her.
These are not necessarily horrible people, but only selfish and distracted
folk, who cannot imagine that the young girl is quietly taking in everything
that’s being said attempting to comprehend its significance.
problem here is that, although the point of view is clearly from their young
charge, the directors cannot actually reveal her internal thinking (god forbid
a narrator trying to interpret her confused thinking), and no child-actor might
possibility convey it fully. Aprile, a perfectly delightful child actor, does
purse her lips from time to time and raises her lovely face upwards in a
questioning manner; at one quite beautifully conceived moment, she forces her
neophyte step-father to take her hand, the way a parent would naturally); but
mostly she willfully and pleasantly complies to the hugs and kisses they demand
from her, even when, after their contentious divorce, the love they offer her
is mostly to torture each other. Both would like full custody, and the fact
that they must share her makes Maisie a kind of rag doll with her parents
pulling at both ends.
divorce they are even less attentive to Maisie than before, with Beale making
long trips to Europe (and eventually even moving there) and Susanna, about to
return to her rock career, hanging out with a slightly disreputable crowd that,
the directors suggest, are heavily into drugs.
In fact, Maisie has been mothered more
successfully by the former nanny, Margo(Joanna
Vanderham) who Beale marries, it is suggested, simply to have someone to care
for his daughter during her visits. In revenge, ex-wife Susanna marries a
bartender, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), whom she hardly knows.
between the two Manhattan apartments, Maisie continues to bond with Margo and
also finds a much more attentive parent in her new step-father. And as Susanna
gears up her rock tour and Beale takes more and longer trips abroad, Maisie is
left for periods in the step-parent’s care, sometimes even spending long
periods at Lincoln’s bar.
Unlike James’ work, where the
relationships are far more complex and questionable (money is nearly always
involved in James’ societal views), here the inevitable is far more apparent.
Lincoln and Margo are both beautiful young people presented as naturally giving
and loving, while Beale and Susanna are losing their looks and, at middle-age,
are nearing the end of their careers; so it’s only natural that, when they meet
through Maisie, they will fall in love, and that, even when Susanna does show
up again to claim her daughter, the child will choose the step-parents over her
long-absent mother and totally gone father.
matter, as Francine Prose wrote of this movie, that as a bartender and nanny
they will probably be unable to give Maisie the seemingly endless wardrobe she
has had (a new dress for every scene) nor the nice digs where she displays her
very large collection of animals and other toys. And forget the fact that in
James’ tale Maisie has developed enough maturity and presence of mind to pick
her other, older nanny, Mrs. Wix over her beloved but adulterous stepfather Sir
Claude and her previous nanny.
can’t blame her, in the McGehee and Siegel deconstruction, that she prefers
beauty and romance over a “smelly” old lady. This is, after all, a Hollywood
production, despite its smaller budget. And given all these actors’ skill, it
almost amounts to something more than the usual stereotypes as presented, for
example, in Kramer vs. Kramer. But in
the end it disappoints simply for not addressing the deeper issues that it
glosses over. If we tuned into the story a bit later, mightn’t we discover this
dreamy, slightly incestuous couple—given the fact that at work’s end they are
presumably still married to Maisie’s original parents—might become a
quarrelling pair when faced with their financial constraints? And even if they
are able to salve the sufferings of the 6-year old child, can they truly offer,
in that Manhattan hothouse life, a better life?
this film doesn’t pretend, as so many Hollywood pictures of the past have
suggested, that the small victim, might be able to bring her erring parents
back together again. Besides, the switch hitters are so much prettier, almost
as pretty as this slightly gauzy film.