Sunday, September 18, 2016

Scott McGehee and David Siegel | What Maisie Knew

switch hitters

by Douglas Messerli

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.


     The 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. 

      The 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.

     After the 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. 

     Shuttled 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.

      No 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.

       We 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?

     At least 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.

Los Angeles, September 18, 2016

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