What Maisie Knew
Written by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright
Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel
What does it mean, to “enjoy” a film like Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s What Maisie Knew? How does one gain pleasure from watching a marriage disintegrate, through the eyes of the young girl caught in the middle? Can a film like this elicit a positive emotional response, aside from appreciation for the technical skill of its actors or filmmakers? In the right hands, it can; in these hands, it absolutely does.
Henry James’ novel of the same name, generally thought to be unadaptable due to the degree that it goes inside the head of its young protagonist, is brought into the present day by writers Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright. Maisie is played by Onata Aprile and her parents, who were generic British lords in the book, are today’s version of American royalty: Manhattan socialites with apartments the size of small towns. Mother Susanna (Julianne Moore) is an aging rocker who can’t let go of her hard-partying ways – think Joan Jett crossed with Courtney Love – and who seeks a divorce from Maisie’s art-dealer father Beale (Steve Coogan). Their battles are in the background: Maisie is the one who is in almost every shot of this film, and the camera is almost always on her regardless of what important plot development might be taking place elsewhere in the scene.
The triumph of this screenplay is that it turns the film’s title into a question that the audience will be constantly be asking throughout the film: what exactly does Maisie know? More than that, this film creates an atmosphere around Maisie where every other character imputes what they wish Maisie knew into their interactions with her. Each of Maisie’s self-involved parents, as well as her more kind-hearted step-parents, want Maisie to believe that they are doing the right thing for her and why, regardless of whether or not she can even understand.
To that end, Aprile is good in the role of Maisie. She’s a bit of a cipher, in that she doesn’t really seem to be reacting to her environment in many scenes, but that allows each of the other characters to kid themselves into thinking that she is accepting their opinions as truth. As the film goes on, audience members will find themselves making exactly the same slip that Susanna and Beale do: wanting Maisie to understand how other adults are using her, without any real proof that she is even capable of that understanding. At that moment, the high quality of Aprile’s work becomes clear.
The most rewarding aspect of this film is watching Maisie simply get to be a kid. Even kids trapped in ugly domestic disputes aren’t miserable all of the time – and it’s even easier for Maisie, whose family wealth provides her with a good school, attentive nannies, and enough distractions from the worst parts of Susanna and Beale’s disputes. If she were miserable all of the time, there would be less of a question of what Maisie knows or doesn’t know – obviously she would know that something were wrong. Thus, her moments of joy serve to lighten heavy subject material, but they also make that subject and the resulting drama all the more ambiguous.
The film oversteps slightly in its final act, having Susanna go too far in her self-absorbption and make a move which is an unambiguous disaster. Still, Moore deserves significant praise for this role: she doesn’t flinch from the unsympathetic things that the character does, and she strives hard to maintain that basic love of Maisie which is still there despite all of her selfishness and carelessness. She’s assisted by a dynamite final scene, in which lesser writers might opt for a long monologue for Susanna. In fact just one question, and one answer, tells the audience the only truth that Maisie knows and needs.