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What Maisie Knew

May 24, 2013
What Maisie Knew

The central conceit in What Maisie Knew — Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s updated version of the Henry James novel — is now a bit of a misnomer. The novel’s story takes far longer, allowing Maisie to grow up and become aware of how her parents were behaving. But in the film it’s not so much “What Maisie Knew [about who her parents were]” as “What Maisie Knew [about what was going on around her]”. And it’s not even really what she knows is going on so much as what we would know, given what she overhears.

The film is entirely shot from the perspective of Maisie (Onata Aprile), a young girl growing up in New York City, as her unmarried parents are splitting up. Susanna (Julianne Moore) sings with a rock band (The Kills), and Beale (Steve Coogan) is an art dealer. The court awards joint custody when Beale moves out, but neither parent is satisfied with the other being less than perfectly miserable.

Beale not only moves Maisie into his new apartment, but the nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham) as well. And then he marries Margo in a move Susanna interprets as an attempt to consolidate his case for custody, which may well be correct. In retaliation Susanna marries Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), a bartender who hangs around with the band in her studio space.

Susanna and Beale are both profoundly selfish and irresponsible people. Margo may be infatuated with Beale, but she at least has a history of caring for Maisie, and Lincoln falls naturally into a caretaker role. It was very early on that I found myself hoping for Maisie to somehow end up with Lincoln and Margo rather than with either of her biological parents.

But McGehee and Siegel as film directors cannot control our view nearly so well as James could as an author. We don’t really get any insight into what Maisie sees, understands, or thinks about what’s happening; Aprile is adorable, but she really doesn’t say a lot that can let us peer inside her head. Instead we end up projecting our own understanding of divorce onto the snippets of conversation we overhear along with Maisie.

Even if we impute some sort of real understanding of what awful people her parents are — an understanding James allowed his protagonist until her adolescence to really figure out — history has somewhat dulled the edge of the story’s once-incisive social commentary. Who today would take Susanna and Beale as representative of divorcing couples in general? So we’re left with one comment: an acrimonious divorce is hard on little kids; who doesn’t know that already?

As a portrait of this one broken family, What Maisie Knew is superbly crafted. Moore and Coogan make their characters as thoroughly despicable as they need to be, and it’s always great to see Skarsgård play at the milder, sweeter end of his range. Aprile charms us, and it’s reassuring to note that very few of the shots actually expose this young actress to the ugliness her character must endure. But there’s just too little left to the story to make it anything more than another story about a cute, sympathetic lead trapped among terrible people.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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