“What Maisie Knew”: Through a Child’s Eyes, Darkly

Reviews What Maisie Knew

Published on May 1st, 2013 | by John Oursler


 Grade: C

“What Maisie Knew” opens May 3 at Angelika Film Center.

Running time: 99 minutes; 2012; Rated R
Directed by Scott McGeehee and David Siegel

Once upon a time, divorce was a cultural phenomenon so rare that it could provide a film’s entire narrative framework. Over the years the filmic representation of marriage’s dissolution has changed: The ‘60s produced films in which divorces were altogether reversed or where they didn’t happen but should have, as in “The Parent Trap” (1961) and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”(1966); “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), a seminal entry in the divorce film genre, reflected changing gender norms within the institution; “The War of the Roses” (1989) acknowledged that divorce was becoming more of a norm than an exception, manifested in the film’s black comedy. But this seemingly organic trajectory is upset by the inexplicable “What Maisie Knew,” a rather unsuccessful adaptation of an 1897 Henry James novel that attempts to look at a rather modern kind of “divorce”—that of two people who aren’t married—through the eyes of its priviest spectator, their child.

Susanna (Julianne Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan) are the type of New York City couple that has become commonplace: Unmarried and unwaveringly driven by career, they function more as friends with benefits than as a union of two people. Susanna is an aging rocker, past her prime but still living the clichéd pop-culture interpretation of the lifestyle: late night parties with lots of people and an open-door policy at her fabulous NYC penthouse. Beale’s business, art dealing, is similarly hectic, frequently taking him abroad at a moment’s notice, which is fitting given his inability to commit. 

The action begins in tumult, as the metropolitan couple viciously fights, always verbally, about the quality of each other’s parenting and who should bear the blame for what. Each has the same argument: that the other’s inability to be selfless renders him/her an ineffective parent. And they’re both right. Meanwhile, their daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile), is shuffled to and fro by a caring nanny, Margo (an excellent Joanna Vanderham), easily the most parent-like figure in her young life.

Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel stay faithful to James’s novel by keeping Maisie’s perspective the primary point of connection for the audience. It’s an interesting choice, and, to an extent, it works. Bordering on dreamlike, the film has an ethereal quality, its scenes flowing seamlessly into one another. The outskirts of the frame are often white, and the camera is placed low to the ground to indicate Maisie’s point of view. They’re not particularly inventive techniques, but they work in that they render the film a series of childlike memories.

If the beginning of the film is somewhat successful it’s because the repetitious nature of the story has yet to unfold. Susanna and Beale devolve into petulant, childlike behavior with each other, but their obliviousness towards their daughter’s whereabouts or feelings isn’t believable: At various points during the film they either forget about Maisie or leave her with a host at a restaurant, a friend, a complete stranger, or a counselor at school. And absurdly, each parent immediately gets married to a much younger person, apparently for no other reason than to look good in the impending custody battle.

What starts to tip the film into unintentional melodrama is the complete implausibility of its characters. As great an actor as Julianne Moore is, this film finds her segueing into hysteric amateurishness. Steve Coogan is basically a non-entity in an uncharacteristically dramatic role, but it serves its purpose as his character lacks all self-awareness anyway. And while the parents come off as caricatures, Maisie shows an unrealistic grace under pressure for a child her age; she’s unflappable. In every situation she retains the same cool demeanor.

What’s worse is that in 2012 the moral of James’s novel seems unfairly hackneyed. The through-a-child’s-eyes framing device was an interesting choice in the late nineteenth century, and still could be now if employed in new and interesting ways. But the only lessons that McGeHee and Siegel seem to want to impart are that bad parents are usually bad people and that children are stronger willed than we think. If that’s the case, mission accomplished. However, the been-there/done-that factor looms heavily over this misfired adaptation.

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About the Author

is a freelance film critic based in NYC. He has a master's degree in nonprofit management, which he hopes will lead to a career in programming or fundraising at a film festival.

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