Directed by: Scott McGehee & David Siegel.
Written by: Nancy Doyne & Carroll Cartwright based on the novel by Henry James.
Starring: Julianne Moore (Susanna), Steve Coogan (Beale), Alexander Skarsgård (Lincoln), Joanna Vanderham (Margo), Onata Aprile (Maisie).
What Maisie Knew is one of those rare movies about childhood that is made for adults. The entirety of the movie is told from the point of view of Maisie (Onata Aprile) who watches her rock star mom Susanna (Julianne Moore) and art dealer dad Beale (Steve Coogan) constantly argue – and eventually decide to get a divorce. They both fight for custody of Maisie – but not because either actually wants her, but so the other one doesn’t get her. They will both quickly remarry – Beale to Margo (Joanna Vanderham), who was Maisie’s nanny, and Susanna to Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a bartender – and essentially for the same reason – so that when they have custody of Maisie, they can pass her off on someone else to do the actual work. Surprisingly, the movie is based on a novel by Henry James – who wrote it in 1897 because he thought upper class parents in Britain were becoming callous and unfeeling towards their children. Unlike most parents, they don’t sacrifice anything for their kids – they see them as accessories that they try to fit into their schedules. The book is now over 100 years old – but still relevant. The parents here may be in Manhattan and not England in the early years of this century, and not the waning days of the 1800s, but they are still basically the same.
The greatest accomplishment of What Maisie Knew is that it completely understands what it’s like to be a child. Poor Maisie, doesn’t understand everything – all she knows is that first her parents are fighting, and then they’re no longer living together and she’s shuttled back and forth, and now she has “new” parents as well. She half understands everything – while we in the audience understand much more. The problem with both Susanna and Beale is that they have forgotten what it’s like to be a child – they treat her as a little adult, and do not understand why everything is so confusing to her. If they aren’t there to pick Maisie up from school on time, that’s okay, she’ll be fine. If Susanna needs to drop her off with Lincoln while he’s still at work – she’ll just leave her by the curb outside the bar. If Beale thinks it’s a good idea to move back to England – without Maisie – he’ll just take her out for a nice meal, and explain it to her rationally.
But Maisie does not understand everything. She’s still a child – and although she is a perceptive one – one who remembers all the broken promises made to her, she doesn’t quite understand why her parents are behaving the way they do. The good news for Maisie is that both Margo and Lincoln love her – and take better care of her than her real parents do. They are essentially in the same boat – people who hastily married someone they thought they loved, only to realize that they have been used and are essentially a babysitter that doesn’t get paid. But they do love Maisie – and they start to see each other in a different light.
The movie is thankfully free of too much sentimentality. Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel – making their best film since The Deep End (2001) – understand that they don’t need to ramp up the emotions too high here – they don’t need to lay things on too thickly, because Maisie’s story is heartbreaking enough as it is. Perhaps they cross the line into sentimentality at the end of the movie – which struck me as unrealistic – but we forgive them that trespass, because while it’s not an ending we can quite believe, it is the ending we want.
The performances in the movie are quite good – starting with Aprile’s as Maisie, who is not cloying or cutesy – but a realistic child performance. She plays a child used to being ignored and disappointed, who wants to make others around her happy, and doesn’t hold grudges. Kids are like that – it’s only when they grow up and realize how shitty their parents were, that they resent them. Coogan is excellent as a blithely careless Beale. He doesn’t realize what an asshole he’s being – which of course makes him an even bigger asshole. Moore is terrific as the self-involved Susanna. Strangely, while she is more volatile than Beale, she is also the better parent – at least she wants Maisie to be happy, and eventually realizes that she won’t be happy with her. Skarsgard and Vanderham have rather thankless roles – they are perhaps a little too perfect – but they do the best they can with the roles.
There have been a lot of films made about divorce in the years since Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer – but What Maisie Knew is both one of the most low-key, and effective, ones I have seen. It looks at the children of divorce from their point-of-view, and dispels the myth that divorce does no harm on the children involved. It is quite a great film – it is a little too simplistic at the end for that – but it’s a quietly moving one.