Scott McGehee and David Siegel bring Henry James’s novel bang up-to-date with What Maisie Knew, proving that the kids are not always alright.
Through the Eyes of Babes by Laura Bennett
What Maisie Knew deals with what appears at first sight to be a very modern problem. History it seems changes nothing: this story of a little girl being shuttled backwards and forwards between divorced parents, who struggle to fit her like a square peg through the round holes of their adult lives, was originally penned by American author Henry James in 1897.
Our thoroughly modern Maisie, spellbindingly played by wide-eyed newcomer Onata Aprile, is relocated to Manhattan. She is the daughter of a resolutely unlikeable singer (Susanna, played by Julianne Moore) and a spineless art dealer (Beale, played by Steve Coogan). The film opens with a snapshot of Maisie’s chaotic home life and the breakdown of her parents’ relationship; entirely failing to figure on their radar as a volley of abuse and screaming flies back and forth, she pays for her own pizza delivery from her piggy bank. This can only go one way. Despite her genes, Maisie is a bright and thoughtful child who does well at school and takes refuge in her close relationship with her kind nanny, Margo. The inevitable custody battle between her parents ensues and Susanna in particular seems to feel no compunction at giving free rein to her hatred of Maisie’s father in full view of the vulnerable little girl.
As the practical issues of joint custody come to light, Maisie moves to and fro from one side of Manhattan to the other. In a neat twist, Margo moves in with Beale, something that infuriates Susanna but fails to faze Maisie; her only problem is that her new, more mature replacement nanny “smells funny”. Margo and Beale’s relationship develops and they get married; Beale begins to rely completely on Margo when it comes to looking after Maisie and she struggles to morph her former role as nanny into that of wife. Susanna also takes on extra help in the form of surprise new husband, Lincoln, who turns up unannounced one day to pick up Maisie from school. Maisie and Lincoln soon become firm friends.
Laid-back bartender Lincoln and Maisie spend an increasing amount of time together and develop a strong bond. This does not go unnoticed by the hateful Susanna, whenever she’s briefly back from tour that is. Seemingly incapable of recognising Maisie’s vulnerability and continuing to treat her more as an adult than a child, she becomes jealous of her daughter’s friendship with Lincoln, something she has never been able to foster herself.
As the absentee parents disappear further from their daughter’s life, she is not the only one to notice the holes they leave. Lincoln and Margo’s paths cross regularly when dropping off or picking up Maisie and a friendship grows between them. Their respective relationships with Susanna and Beale begin to disintegrate, like circles rippling out from the original doomed couple.
Susanna is permanently on tour; Beale tells Maisie he is planning to move back to England, also mistakenly attempting to relate to her as an adult rather than as a child. Despite her resolute sweetness, Maisie’s world continues to unravel: one day she is left entirely alone in the street when it seems the complicated logistics have fallen apart and no one is on-hand to take care of her. Resourcefully, she makes her own way to the bar where Lincoln works, only to find he is not on duty that evening. Loneliness begins to strike until she is rescued by a kindly colleague of Lincoln’s. Things have come to a head.
Margo returns and takes Maisie out of the city to the coast. Lincoln goes to visit and it seems this relationship with Maisie’s nanny-cum-stepmother has developed into something more romantic. Although this outcome seems perhaps a little too neat, Maisie welcomes the stability. It does not last for long: Susanna rocks into town with tales of taking her on tour to live a life that is far beyond the little girl’s imagination. Initially horrified and hurt that Maisie would prefer to stay with the nascent step-parent couple, Susanna finally comes to a realisation that she has no idea about what her daughter needs.
A touching film with a magical soundtrack like a nursery rhyme in a minor key, it is the performance of Onata Aprile around which the chaotic lives of the adult characters pivot. That a hundred-year-old story should seem so relevant is a testament both to the insight of Henry James and the ability of McGehee and Siegel to tease out the timeless qualities of the narrative.
What Maisie Knew is released in the UK on August 23rd 2013