What Maisie Knew (2012)

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.

Philomena (2013)

Anybody who thinks there’s much difference between fundamentalist Islam, the Jim Jones cult,and mainstream Christianity needs to watch Philomena, Steven Frears’s short, devastating film about the Sean Ross Abbey south of Roscrea in County Tipperary, Ireland.

One scene in particular haunts me. A group of teenage girls who attend St Anne’s school, which doubles as a home for single mothers, are waiting impatiently to enter a room. When the nun, one of their teachers, finally opens the door, they squeal wildly and rush inside. But this isn’t a line to get tickets for a Justin Bieber concert. These little girls, these children, are waiting to see their own children. It’s not an indictment of teenage sex, but of patriarchy. Philomena, the titular heroine, who is 17 but looks younger, was not raped or seduced by an older man. On the contrary, she has nothing but pleasant memories of losing her virginity. Her lover was not only young and handsome. He knew exactly where her clitoris was. But birth control wasn’t widely available in Ireland in the 1950s, and Philomena never had a sex education class. So she winds up pregnant. She’s treated, not as a single mother, but as a criminal, incarcerated in St. Anne’s for the crime of sexual intercourse. But that’s not even the worst part. St. Anne’s is not just an authoritarian reform school. It’s a baby mill. Her son is taken from her without permission and sold on the open market to rich Americans.

The action of Philomena begins 50 years later. We meet Martin Sixsmith, a former BBC journalist, who, in the aftermath of having lost his job as a Labor Party press spokesman, is looking for a new career. He’s thinking about writing a book on Russia history — he was the BBC’s man in Moscow — but his heart’s not really in it. Sixsmith is an Oxford graduate, an ex-Catholic, with the emphasis on “ex,” as much a representative of the liberal, secular side of the United Kingdom as the nuns who run St. Anne’s school are of rural Ireland. After Philomena’s younger child Jane approaches him to ask him to write a story on the loss of her older brother, he, reluctantly, agrees. A “human interest story” is a big step down in prestige, but Sixsmith is a true journalist with a journalist’s natural curiosity. He’s also desperate to get his career back on track.

Philomena, now an elderly woman, a retired nurse, has been looking for her son for decades. Even though she has gone back to St. Anne’s, the nuns have been of no assistance, and, as Sixsmith immediately suspects, have been deliberately stonewalling her. While the Sean Ross Abbey may have gotten a new liberal coat of paint, a younger, subtler mother superior and a black office manager, underneath it’s the same rotten old Catholic Church, a harsh, puritanical matriarchy acting as the local enforcer for the vicious patriarchy in Rome. That Sixsmith can see this almost instantly and Philomena cannot demonstrates just what a tight hold the church still has on her mind. She knows the nuns stole her child. She suspects that they’re stonewalling her, but she’s also unwilling to see the worst in people, even Sister Hildegarde, who will reveal herself as the vile old woman she is at the film’s conclusion.

“Why do you think they managed to lose all the records that will help you find your son,” Sixsmith says when Philomena shows him the restrictive adoption papers she signed, “yet managed to keep the ones that prevent you from contacting him?”

As the movie proceeds, we learned why. The nuns burned all the records documenting how they were selling children on the open market to rich Americans. The action now shifts to the United States, to Washington DC, where Philomena has agreed to accompany Sixsmith. Their relationship deepens. Sixsmith is the upper-class cynic. Philomena is the elderly working class, Catholic innocent. There’s a running joke about Sixsmith’s expense account. For him, the flight to Washington is just another business trip. For Philomena, it’s the entrance to a world of affluent privilege she never imagined existed. But it’s by no means one sided. Sixsmith is curt and perfunctory with service people. Philomena is keenly sensitive to the minimum wage employees who staff the airlines, the restaurants, and the hotels. It seems odd to us that Philomena would have to stop to go to confession in rural Maryland. “Confession,” Sixsmith growls. “That church should be confessing to you.” But Sixsmith’s blistering cynicism also seems misplaced.

In the end, it takes both of them to unravel the mystery. I won’t go into any spoilers, but they find out what happened to Philomena’s son. Sixsmith’s journalistic sleuthing takes them halfway there, but it takes Philomena’s ability to earn people’s trust to take them the rest of the way. The final hour of Philomena is, if anything, more powerful than the introduction. Frears knows exactly how to dramatize a mother’s instinctive love for the son she never met. Nothing about what he became surprises her, if only because she instinctively learned all about him in the brief period she knew him in his childhood. The journey takes them both back to Sean Martin Abbey, where we learn that the nuns who allowed her to deliver a baby via a “breech birth” without anesthesia as “penance,” who emotionally brutalized her, who not only stole her child but stole him on the open market are worse than even all this would have led us to believe. Few films manage to capture the most extreme, most sadistic side of a patriarchal institution like Philomena. Sister Hildegarde doesn’t so much speak her lines. She vomits them out, as much of a demon as Linda Blair was in The Exorcist. But, overall, Philomena didn’t make me want to go Jacobin and tear down the Vatican. It reminded me of a poem by William Blake.

“I went to the Garden of Love,

And saw what I never had seen:

A Chapel was built in the midst,

Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,

And Thou shalt not. writ over the door;

So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,

That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,

And tomb-stones where flowers should be:

And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,

And binding with briars, my joys & desires.”