Review by Ken Burke What Maisie Knew
Based on a novel by Henry James, this is the sad tale of a child carelessly left behind as her parents’ marriage crumbles only to find happiness with her new stepparents.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.]
While box-office cash is flowing non-stop toward such pop-culture fare as Fast & Furious 6 (Justin Lin; just over $117 million after 1 weekend), The Hangover Part III (Todd Phillips; just past $62 million in the same span), and the animated prehistoric The Croods (Kirk De Micco, Chris Sanders; over $179 million, but, admittedly, after 10 weeks), I have the luxury of ignoring all of that sound and fury in favor of a very small film about a very small child almost lost in the whirlwind of the seemingly-more-important aspects of her parents’ lives in Scott McGehee and David Siegel‘s direction of What Maisie Knew, based on the 1897 novel by Henry James. The setting has been changed from London to Manhattan, most of the names and all of the occupations have been adjusted as well, but the essence remains: 2 constantly-bickering people, Suzanna (Julianne Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan), who have lost all touch with their former feelings for each other, play their little daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile), like a ball bearing in the pinball machine of their loud, ricocheting lives with no regard for her well-being except as it serves their individual egos and warped sense of parenthood. Sadly, even after 4 weeks in theatres, What Maisie Knew is making a fraction of the turnstile-heavyweights’ grosses (which also include Star Trek into Darkness* [J.J. Abrams; over $156 million after 2 weeks], Iron Man 3* [Shane Black; close to $373 million after 4 weeks, past the $1 billion mark worldwide], and The Great Gatsby* [Baz Luhrmann]; almost $118 million after 3 weeks], all of which I’m glad I saw as opposed to the others above which I’m glad I skipped [although the latest Fast & Furious sounds like it would be a fun thrill ride if I should suddenly be blindsided by some free time and a bargain matinee), a bit over $301,000 so far (a pittance in contemporary film-income figures, no matter how low Maisie’s unreported budget might be), which is a terrible shame that reception has been so tepid for this film (not surprising, given that it’s expanded to only 27 theatres while most of the ones noted above are playing in anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 venues) because the acting is superb throughout—especially by Aprile, whose camera presence portends great possibilities as she grows—and the tale of a child sidelined by her parents’ selfish individualism is easily as relevant today as it was over a century ago when first put to paper by James.
* Star Trek into Darkness reviewed in this blog in the May 24, 2013 posting, Iron Man in the May 11, 2013 posting, and The Great Gatsby in the May 17, 2013 posting.
Maisie’s parents are an odd pair to begin with, Suzanna as a successful-but-aging-rock-star (with the success indicated by her lavish Manhattan multi-story apartment with a recording studio on an upper floor and the aging aspect indicated by the tour she leaves on at the end of the film—the bus is nice but hardly the vehicle [or fleet of them] that implies the continuing attraction of a major star [Mick Jagger probably has one this size all to himself, if not a private jet] and the tour city list isn’t that impressive either), Beale as an art dealer, probably Susanna’s equal in income and certainly in temperament, although she’s the one who usually flies off the handle first at any comment or situation, no matter how innocent the actuality. They aren’t married and don’t even have joint ownership of that major-league apartment (which works against Beale when Susanna throws him out, but he retaliates by upping the ante in the custody fight through marrying Maisie’s young Scottish nannie, Margo [Joanna Vanderham]; not to be outdone, Susanna retaliates by marrying Lincoln [Alexander Skarsgård], a decent young bartender from an upscale establishment in their tony neighborhood), but in an effort to satisfy their own self-important self-images they make surface efforts to put Maisie at the center of their lives, at least temporarily, but that quickly devolves to Beale flying off to Italy leaving the child with Margo (not a bad thing at first until Margo realizes how little the marriage means to her once-attentive husband and seeks her own privacy away from Maisie) or Susanna too invested in her devolving career to be available for her daughter, resulting in one night where Lincoln has to watch over the child at his bar (he realizes immediately that this is not an acceptable arrangement, but he has little option within his 10-day supervision of Maisie until he attempts to force the girl back onto distraught Margo).
None of these 4 adults (and I use the term very loosely where Maisie’s real parents are concerned) dislike nor abuse the girl (except by their varying degrees of absence in her world), but far too often she’s just an inconvenient reality within lives that weren’t intended nor ready to share with a child. Margo has a marvelous daily connection with her when the film begins, but that’s based on a job structure that allowed Margo to go on with her own existence at the end of each day; when Maisie becomes what Margo’s entire life is supposed to be about (based on Beale’s blasé indifference) the kid becomes an occasional burden. For the others, she really never should have been there in the first place, except to stroke the assumed relationship development of Beale and Susanna, along with the collateral reality that Lincoln acquires with his new marriage (leading to possessive jealousy from Susanna when he attempts to show interest in Maisie, further providing proof that she the WORST. MOTHER. EVER!—despite the underlying but poorly-expressed love she has for her daughter—as acted in a disgustingly-effective manner by Moore, whose general likability as a person is about all that keeps you from reaching into the screen and strangling her selfishly-childish character). For much of the film, Maisie is the most adult of all of them, not from annoying precociousness but rather from a need for self-protection in situations that too often leave her otherwise defenseless—especially when not being retrieved at appointed times, taking solitary cab rides across town, and generally not having parents available to give her guidance on how to navigate life’s questions and mysteries.
Gradually, as stepparents Lincoln and Margo share more time in their singular-evolved-into-mutual-care of Maisie their attraction grows as does the little girl’s affection for them as a loving couple that is not only there for her needs but also that has a heart connection long lost in her biological parents (possibly they did feel that way when their affair first began, but that’s another lifetime removed from the story at hand). When the new spouses decide upon a getaway to a beach cottage that Margo has access to, they are visited by Susanna on her bus, who assumes she’s come to retrieve Maisie and take her along on the tour south to some exotic places intended to fascinate her daughter (as best my memory serves, that included South Carolina, where infidelity seems to be no restraint on people’s careers—at least if you’re trailblazin’ Republican former Governor/current Congressman Mark Sanford—but even if I’m wrong in that specific destination [it could have been North Carolina, where Democratic former Senator/Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards gave a new meaning to infidelity by fathering a child with a campaign worker while his wife was dying of cancer, later was indicted—but not convicted—for alleged violations of campaign laws; clearly, Susanna’s going to feel at home wherever it was that her tour was headed] the reality is for Maisie that anywhere outside of NYC would be a new place for her, potentially an exciting trip to take with her now-more-maternal would-be parent). However, while Maisie accepts the lavish gifts that Susanna brought for her she decides she’d rather stay with her stepparents than go on the road with Mama. This provides a nice ending for what had previously been a heartbreaking story of child neglect (however unintentional, as her parents and guardians were just too wrapped up in their own lives to give the nurturance needed, as none of them were really ready yet to be parents), but it does come as a rather facile wrap-up for all of these lives—Susanna now alone trying to keep her faltering career alive, Beale back to England for awhile (with no thought of Margo accompanying him and only a passing, then rejected, consideration of taking Maisie), and the new spouses seemingly ready for their anticipated post-divorce lives together, likely graduating to adoptive parents of our young heroine. It’s a sweet resolution for Maisie after all the trauma she’s endured, but for me it just felt too obvious and easy, even if it does follow the original book.
Ah, but there’s the rub: It doesn’t follow the book to completion, just to the point of this supposed happy ending. In the original narrative (no, I didn’t read it—I have a reputation to maintain, after all—but summaries abound with a little Web surfing) we follow Maisie into her early teenage years, where she sees the possibility of throwing in her lot with the newly-minted couple of Sir Claude and Miss Overmore/new Mrs. Farange (Lincoln and Margo in this cinematic adaption) but instead chooses the dull but reliable Mrs. Wix, who evolves from governess to guardian (we get a quick version of Mrs. Wix [Paddy Croft] in the film but only as an undesirable alternative to Margo, soon to depart from the current plot), as the literary Maisie determines that the love bond of her stepparents will likely deteriorate just as did that of her actual progenitors. Thus, what Maisie knew in the book seems to be a bitter but useful life lesson about human frailty whereas the filmic Maisie only seems to know that younger, less self-absorbed parents are a better deal than what she’s been negotiating for the previous 90 or so minutes. That could have been a much more insightful conclusion for this film, which takes a well-prepared shit sandwich and puts a little whipped cream and a cherry on top to leave us all with a more pleasant taste after what we’d had to digest from the lives of Susanna and Beale up to the finale. The existing easy ending is what holds this film back for me from a higher rating, that after all of the carefully-explored dialogue and deterioration of a relationship and how it collapses under the weight of its self-indulgent co-conspirators we come to such a conveniently-pleasant conclusion, apparently as an attempt to salvage something uplifting about the possibilities of human warmth and caring. Maybe I’ve just seen too many Bergman films—where satisfactory resolution was never an option—to allow me to have better appreciation for what happens here, but after such a masterful buildup in the filmic version of this story of a too-long-under-appreciated child I just felt at the end that the whole potential of the presentation got on the bus and went south with Susanna with the assumption that true love is secure back at the beach house where Maisie’s life will continue to blossom. Maybe so, but I think that literary Realist Henry James, despite being a life-long bachelor (possibly gay, not that there’s anything wrong with that), had a better grasp on what likely awaited his novel’s central character due to the vicissitudes of human relationships.
As is often the case with my reviews, I’ll leave you with a musical allusion to what I think you’d experience in the film, with my choice this time being Jackson Browne’s “In the Shape of a Heart” (from the 1986 Lives in the Balance album) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AWIJ8RAcsHQ, a performance from the Jackson Browne: Going Home 2010 DVD. This sad song about a failed relationship gets to what was “coming apart” between Susanna and Beale; there’s no child in Browne’s narrative to be either traumatized or rescued (depending on how you think Maisie will develop in her post-biological-parents years), but it’s just as well so that another innocent soul doesn’t have to endure the “shallows and the unseen reefs that are there from the start,” a tragedy that Susanna and Beale simply refused to acknowledge or correct, even if they ever had the ability to do so. “I guess [they] never knew …”
If you’d like to know more about What Maisie Knew (because she probably won’t tell you on her own just yet), here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkY2v5N4beI (for once, an interview with a film’s screenwriter, Carroll Cartwright, rather than the director and one that runs 43:35 to boot)
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