What Maisie Knew -- A Review
Here is a contemporary adaptation of Henry James' respected eponymous 1897 novel directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel. Maisie is the kindergartner offspring of a self-involved rock singer, Susanna (a blistering Julianne Moore), and an equally unreflective international art dealer, Beale (a distant, philandering, unlovable Steve Coogan, abjuring his uproarious comic side for this fad-sad-trad dad). The convolutions and setbacks, wrangles and self-righteousness of an acrid divorce and custody battle are displayed here, all from the point of view of the child in question, sweet 5- or 6-year-old Maisie.
The casting is particularly daring, because both Moore and Coogan are well-loved for their frequent, winning simulacra of beloved characters. But we give them the leeway they earn as frivolous and heedless bits of parental flotsam. We willingly cede our ingrained habit of instant affection for these limbic, obliviously self-concerned parents of a most adorable, deserving child, the Maisie pictured here -- done to a perfectly steady sadness by Onata Aprile, who is heartbreakingly trusting, painfully aware of much more than her selfish parents realize. Like most children, she may not articulate all she senses, but she sees and knows considerably more than the adults give her credit for. The casting ignores Mancunian Coogan's hyphenates as comedian-actor-producer-writer, and all his awards as a popular TV impressionist; his usual personae of warped and wussy humor are here not hinted at.
Instead, these accomplished artistes are petty, vindictive, hysterical, and mindless, unaware of all the theoretical constructs we have been doused with since the Spockian psycho-inspirational deluge of the mid-'50s, '60s and onward. Some psychoanalytic critics over the years have argued the Jamesian story is a parallel between James' narrative voice and the jargon-rich common problem of psychological transference. Whatever, it is a gripping, even tension-filled, unmerry-go-round.
What Maisie Knew is no museum piece from a fustian prior era. Given a spit-gloss of trendy elements, it is a Baedeker of a damaged, decayed and careless society. James has given us a rough and prescient microcosm of a culture that has failed its prime responsibility: lovingly ferrying its children into adulthood.
As the story of a child ignored by a set of too-preoccupied parents gradually unspools, we see only the POV of beautiful, ignored Maisie: snatches of lawyer talk, bits of hateful divorcing husband-wife interchanges, harried last-minute arrangements for baby-sitters and nannies that are too-evidently a way to fob off the needs of a little being who is clearly inconvenient to both parents.
With blended families and court fights so much a factor in large cities today across the country, the book from a century ago, which seemed astonishingly cynical back at the end of the 19th century (Vladimir Nabokov, notorious author of Lolita, reputedly hated the novel when given the manuscript), back when the landed parents were oh-so-busy socialites who delegated to servants and governesses what they had no time for, is now, curiously, dead on.
The couple is awarded joint custody, with all the agita that entails. Doubled furnishings, forgotten pickups, missed scheduling, unsympathetic judges, half-empty little suitcases, competing bribes, cleverly disguised snooping on the other parent's doings, schlepping from one elevator'ed digs in Gotham to other more-doting doormen. The set design encompasses some lovely aspects of NYC --and the Hamptons -- that are also fresh whether the season is spring or winter. The child must be entertained. We get the lovely apple greens of Central Park and the knick-knack artifacts of the indulgence-addicted rocker mom, her tastefully artsy pad, versus the more straight-laced but monied excess of the shuttling UK-US-Rome father.
Sweet Maisie, not behaving as we probably would under those conditions, does not act out, hurt others, scream or become immobilized by trauma. She keeps her cool, looking with transparent gaze at the excuses of each parent at the slightest zephyr of professional beck or circumstance, eventually swiveling to a new layer of caretakers, solicitous step-minders married to her inconstant absentee originals. Her accumulating wisdom of the irresponsible, fickle adults she has been born to and is supposed to live with eventually turns her to rely fully on her devoted friends, the young nanny-wife her father is no longer enamored of, and the convenient boy-toy her mother is already bored with. Maisie loves her mother and father, but becomes resigned to jettisoning them as they routinely fail to take her existence into account.
The astute can't help noticing how angelic the ex-governess-cum-new wife, Margo, played by the softly glowing Joanne Vanderham, is, alongside the earnest-bartender new husband, Lincoln (tall, diffident-sexy, hunky Alexander Skarsgård, who bears a striking resemblance to Viggo Mortenson). It won't spoil the plot if one appreciates how beautiful these two are, and how obvious it is by the filmic conventions that an attraction might develop. [Okay, that spoils the surprise... just a drop. But you saw it coming a furlong off.]
The gift of the great Julianne Moore is that this despicable brat of a performer makes you see her decency under all the self-involvement. You believe she is a clawing rock star, afraid of fading from public adulation. Both narcissi really love their child, but just don't know how to split themselves into good parents atop their careers.
Plot lacunae exist, of course, if you're on the qui vive. For one thing, where does all the money come from to provide all these high-end toys, junior-18s and bungalows to escape the city? How can someone just introduce himself as a "new, sort of stepfather" to an exclusive private school on the Upper East and have the principal there buy that louche, not to say lamebrain, intro? How could Beale abandon his beauteous wife almost the minute he remarries -- why bother? What about that unresolved finale?
Then again, if you're not that nitpicky, either pick up the divergent Henry James original, or sigh and smile as you waft outside the theatre, happy that the child has not been abducted or slain by wolves.
Funny how James was a lifelong bachelor, yet climbed unnervingly into the mindset and sentiments of a young girl, and her sulfurous squabbling, soon-to-be-ex'ed parents. At the very least: A lesson for today's busy, busy parents; and a colorful indictment of those too decadent to be responsible for their undertakings.