I haven’t read What Maisie Knew, the classic work of fiction by Henry James. But after watching the superb adaptation by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, it’s only a matter of time before I do. What Maisie Knew is a short, impressionistic reading of James’ text that not only works on its own terms. It practically demands to be fleshed out into the full length novel.
Six-year-old Onata Aprile plays Maisie Beale, the daughter of Susanna, Julianne Moore, and Beale, Steve Coogan. When the film opens, Susanna, a well-known singer songwriter, and Beale, an art dealer, are in the final stages of a divorce. Susanna is a middle-aged wreck. Self-centered and confused, she’s more interested in “winning” Maisie away from her husband than in being a good mother. Beale is worse. A charming, affluent creep, he marries Margot, his daughter’s 20-year-old nanny, then promptly dumps her after she’s served her purpose, to get even with his wife.
If Susanna and Beale are two 50-year-old children, Maisie occasionally reveals herself to be a 6-year-old adult. She’s the only person, for example, to remember to give a pizza delivery man his tip. But unlike most Hollywood pre-teens, Maisie is a genuine 6-year-old, not a cute little muppet with an adult personality. What’s more, McGehee and Siegal so consistently center the film in Masie’s point of view that we soon begin to see the world through the eyes of the unhappy child of two squabbling parents. When Susanna and Beale scream at each other, we don’t think “oh shut up you assholes.” Like Maisie, we feel our world falling apart, our sense of stability and order shattered before it’s even begun to develop.
Unlike Maisie, however, most of us have enough experience to understand just how badly Susanna and Beale are acting. Beale marries Margot to impress the family court judge. But after he gets joint custody of Maisie, he’s no longer interested in acting like her father. Once he wins the prize, he no longer wants the prize. Susanna can, at times, be a sympathetic person, but she’s a textbook example of a horrible parent. Self-centered and narcissistic, she makes promises to her daughter she can’t keep, then pats herself on the back simply for doing her job, taking care of the child she brought into the world.
Soon, she’s not even doing that. Like Beale, Susanna finds a younger spouse, Lincoln, a handsome young bartender played by Alexander Skarsgård. Lincoln bonds with Maisie, beoming more of a real father than Beale, but also provokes the narcissistic Susanna’s wrath. She has no time for her daughter. She’s also resentful at anybody, Lincoln, then Margot, who attempts to fill in the gaps. If Susanna has little interest in being a good mother, she’s also very interested in the image of herself as a good mother. God help anybody who gets in the way. In one quietly horrifying scene, for example, Susanna drops Maisie off at the bar where Lincoln works, but doesn’t even bother to check whether or not he’s on shift that night. He’s not. “I’ll wait here until you go inside,” she says to Maisie, patting herself on the back, even as she abandons a six-year-old alone in lower-Manhattan.
What Maisie Knew ends on an ambiguous note. Lincoln and Margot, with whom he begins a relationship, have, almost by accident, become Maisie’s step parents. But Maisie is essentially an orphan. Like any neglected child, she’s at the mercy of forces beyond her control. Lincoln and Margot, for example, could have their own kids. Either Susanna or Beale could drop in any time they want and take her back. The courts could intervene. She could wind up under the control of child protective services. Even if everything works out “for the best,” if she’s adopted and raised by two attractive young step parents, she’s always going to wonder why her biological parents abandoned her. We have witnessed, over the course of 90 minutes, the murder of a 6-year-old’s soul.
A final note: In addition to casting a child actor in the lead, and consistently seeing the world through the eyes of a 6-year-old, Scott McGehee and David Siegel have also managed to retain James’ sense of social class. The bourgeois Susanna and Beale have not only abandoned their child, they’ve shuffled off their parental responsibilities to the working class Lincoln and Margot, robbing them of time they might have otherwise devoted to their own biological children, when and if they choose to have them.