Henry James wrote What Maisie Knew in 1897 as a scathing indictment of English society and the growing number of parents who ignored their responsibilities to their children and led lives of decadence and immorality. The movie version, set in contemporary Manhattan, is generally true to the novel, with a couple of notable exceptions. But since I am categorically opposed to spoilers, I’ll give you just a skeletal synopsis of the storyline of this adaptation.
Maisie is a 6-year-old who is caught in the middle of her parents’ (Julianne Moore as Susanna and Steve Coogan as Beale) nasty, and I mean nasty, divorce. Each parent is portrayed as totally selfish and manipulative. Moore’s interpretation of her role is a touch over the top, or maybe I don’t want to believe that parents can really be such selfish jerks. Both parents quickly remarry, and the sweet, young nanny (played perfectly by Joanna Vanderham) stays in Maisie’s life in a new role. Susanna’s new husband, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), is young and pliable, and seems to be the one of the group who is most devoted to Maisie. I won’t give away any more of the plot, except to observe that the acting is very good. I don’t know about you, but I love watching Julianne Moore in almost anything. Ever since I saw her in Safe, Todd Haynes’ 1995 ode to the chemically sensitive, I’ve been a real fan. I will say that pretty soon she’s going to have to transition into “older” roles because she’s almost too old right now to play the mother of a 6-year-old. Coupled with the fact that her character in Maisie is a rock musician, you’ve got a case of willing suspension of disbelief, but you’re worth it, Julianne. Loved Steve Coogan here. He was believably narcissistic, and I liked his Tiny Tim doppelganger look.
The real star of this film, of course, is Maisie, played by newcomer Onata Aprile with incredible focus and precision. Her character does not display any wild emotional outbursts or deep depression. Instead, Maisie understands the emotional abandonment she endures with a six-year old’s sensibility—she is mostly resigned to having little control over her life. She is continually trying to solve the puzzle of reconciling the love she feels for her parents with their disregard for her. Another Maisie might have shown more visible emotional responses, and when I remake the movie, my Maisie will display more freak-out. It would be great to have read James’ novel to see his Maisie and how her story is depicted. I’m almost tempted to read the book, but would I actually go that far to satisfy my curiosity? My research tells me, however, that in the novel, the reader becomes acquainted with Maisie beginning from when she is a small child and continuing until she reaches adolescence. In the movie, we only see her as a small child.
What Maisie Knew held my attention, and the story has even more relevance today than in 1897. Critics have given it overwhelmingly positive reviews, and audiences have also enjoyed it. Check out this spin on the matter of divorce and its effects on the children. The characters are interesting, and their interrelationships are even more interesting. I wanted to know what Maisie knew, and I happily took the ride. – [DVD]
DVD Release Date: 8/13/13