What Maisie Knew, adapted from the Henry James novella of the same name, is a little gem of a film starring Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skaarsgard and newcomer Onata Aprile. True to the novella, Co-Directors McGehee and David Siegel use the camera to give us seven year-old Maisie’s view of her dysfunctional parents in the midst of a torrid and destructive divorce. James’ novel was acclaimed for its profound insights and interior perspective of the child in the circumstance, and the transition from the page to the screen is successfully rendered with the help of a tightly crafted script set in modern day New York City by screenwriter Carroll Cartwright. Not since Kramer vs. Kramer has a film so capably explored a disastrous marriage and its consequences with such acuity.
That Henry James’ novels have been such fertile ground for filmmakers is no surprise. His themes and motifs are timeless, characters engaging, resonant and thoroughly modern. Of the dozens of screen adaptations of James’ novels since the 1930’s, Hollywood has most recently churned out Jane Campion’s Portrait of A Lady (1996), Agnieszka Holland’s Washington Square (1998), Iain Softley’s The Wings of the Dove (1998) and The Turn of the Screw (In A Dark Place, 2006). Each of these films pit a cynicism against innocence in circumstances with different but nonetheless intriguing results. This adaptation of What Maisie Knew is no exception.
Maisie (the surprising Onata Aprile) is jostled back and forth between her divorced parents, rock star Susanna (Julianne Moore) and art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan). Cynicism is rife while the viewer is given a privileged view of Maisie’s reactions to Beale and Susanna’s irresponsible immaturity: bartering their daughter’s emotions; bartering their own emotions with lovers; bartering their conscience for revenge. Repeatedly, Maisie intercedes with the innocent love that only a child can bring to such a pathetic circumstance. McGehee and Siegel’s camera revels in the role reversal: Maisie is sensitive, stoic and mature; Beale and Susanna insensitive, excitable and out of control. Enter the respective lovers and new spouses of Beale and Susanna, Margo (Joanna Vanderham) and Lincoln (Alexander Skaarsgard) who, fed up with the antics of their partners, hook up. They do so as much for their love of Maisie as for each other: the cast-offs become an authentic loving family. I found screenwriter Cartwright’s exploration of this dynamic refreshing. Maisie becomes a cupid of sorts, a messenger, a guardian, if you will, of what can be right about a relationship between a man and a woman.