Where are the grownups?
Viewers of the new film by Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End) unfamiliar with Henry James’s eponymous 1897 novel may be surprised how similar its outlines are to this seemingly very modern tale of a poor little rich New York girl and the irresponsible and confused adults who shuttle her back and forth. James was being very up-to-date: his little Maise, like the one played by the preternaturally composed Onata Aprile, was the child of divorced parents, who used her as a bargaining card and object of contention. The father in James’s novel married the nanny, just as Steve Coogan marries Joanna Vanderham, the Scottish au pair. There’s no likable but weak Sir Claude for Maisie’s mom Julianne Moore — titled Englishmen aren’t so thick on the ground in modern Manhattan. But she quickly gets hitched to a likable but weak fellow, the tall young bartender Lincoln, played by Alexander Skarsgård. And these new couples soon start fighting, and the new spouses pair off with each other — just as happens in Henry James.
Faithfulness to the source novel’s basic structure isn’t what makes this new movie cool and successful, simply a sign of how clever Carroll Cartright and Nancy Doyle’s screenplay is. Adept writing provides a foundation for good acting. Coogan is perfect as the posh and busy, but flailing and clueless art dealer Beale, Maisie’s father. Julianne Moore has an edge and brave lack of beauty she’s rarely shown and goes admirably far outside her usual weepy comfort zone as Maise’s hardened, fading rock star mom Susanna, her outfits always stylish, always too rakish and too young. Her moments with Maisie are the hardest to watch, and the most important. Vanderhaum and the younger Skarsgård (he especially) are remarkably real and present.
The most innovative thing about the novel, also followed here, was its telling everything from the little girl’s point of view. All we see (or read) is precisely what Maisie knew. McGehee and Siegel preserve this effect. And at the centre of it all, at all times, young Aprile is suitably remarkable. This filmmaking pair are no Dardennes, no Powell and Pressberger; in a Metacritic “Best and Worst Director Duos” scale they fall in the middle. This ranks with The Deep End as their greatest success. Again McGehee and Siegel are appealing to a sophisticated indie audience.
As in the source novel, the nastiness is somehow muted because the little girl doesn’t really understand it. When the movie begins, Susanna and Beale are having a yell-fest, with Maisie’s minder at one side. It’s Maisie who goes down the stairs and gives the pizza delivery man his tip. It’s a sign how strong, independent, and oblivious she is. She only rarely lets on with tears how hurt she may be by the chaos and hostility that surround her. She can’t afford to.
The big difference is that the movie cuts out the reliable, if frumpy, traditional old nanny, Mrs. Wix (not even identified in the IMDb casting list), whom Susanna hires after Margo goes off with Beale. Maisie says she “smells bad,” and she’s dropped, so there is no reliable person, and at the end Maisie must not choose between the fairytale young couple of Margo and Lincoln (a little too idealized here) and the safe and mature Mrs. Wix (just a blip on the screen), but between them and her mother. And her mother has begun to scare her, as she does us.
The immorality and frivolity of Maisie’s parents in the movie is nothing new; it’s in the nineteenth-century novel. Of course all the details of contemporary New York are different. This good looking movie is busy and always out of breath. Everyone is anxious and overworked, and always on a cell phone. At some point the constant confusion and threat of outright abandonment become wearing for us. As Variety’s Justin Chang wrote from Toronto, the film “strikes the same sad note for 98 minutes.” Gradually we see very well what Maisie knows: Susanna’s and Beale’s competing and manoeuvring (beautifully rendered here) show their protestations of love are meaningless. But how adaptable this child is! You may not want to watch this movie again, but its depiction of posh child neglect is as timely as it apparently is enduring, and you’d be missing something not to watch it once.
What Maisie Knew debuted at Toronto in Sept. 2012. Screened for this review as part of the SFIFF where it was the opening night film 25 April 2013. Limited US release begins 3 May.
Directors: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Stars: Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgård
Runtime: 99 min