Henry James’s 1897 novel provides the inspiration for “What Maisie Knew,” but the story of a young child shuttled between warring parents—both biological and surrogate—remains as potent as ever. Transposed to contemporary New York City, the film, written by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, retains James’s canny decision to relate the tale from the perspective of the girl, with the adults surrounding her seen only in bits and pieces. The tactic works as well on screen as on the page, capturing the uncertainty that a youngster must feel when the people supposedly devoted to her welfare act in irresponsible ways.
The filmmakers were fortunate indeed to find Onata Aprile to play the six-year old Maisie. With her big, wide eyes and subtly expressive face, she’s physically perfect for the part, but what’s most impressive is the naturalness she brings to it. There’s not a hint of exaggeration or playing to the camera in anything she does—even during a final confrontation scene with Julianne Moore as her high-strung mother, her reactions are minimalist rather than obvious. That’s due, of course, not just to Aprile’s ease before the camera, but to the care with which McGehee and Siegel dealt with her on set. But whether the performance is attributable primarily to the girl’s innate ability or masterful coaching from the directors, it’s what grounds the film and gives it such emotional resonance.
That isn’t to say that the rest of the cast doesn’t contribute significantly to the picture’s success. Moore is fiercely compelling as Susanna, Maisie’s mother, a singer whose bohemian lifestyle and professional ambition lead her to become an on-and-off parent who treats her daughter more as a possession than an object of devotion. Much the same can be said of Steve Coogan as her father Beale, an art dealer whose travels keep him away from the family’s plush apartment for long stretches and who overcompensates by spoiling the child when he’s around. The raucous rows the two continuously engage in—quickly tempered when Maisie wanders into their presence—make it clear that their marriage isn’t long for this world. In such a contentious environment, the girl’s sole real comfort comes from her nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), a pretty, vibrant blonde whose concern as she watches the household deteriorate is evident.
When Susanna and Beale part ways, it sets the stage for a bitter custody dispute over Maisie, but the court’s decision dividing the child’s time between them doesn’t increase either’s willingness really to sacrifice on her behalf. Instead they remarry, choosing partners who will act as caregivers to her: Beale weds Margo and then disappears for long stretches as before, while Susanna marries Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a handsome, laid-back bartender who initially seems an unlikely stepfather but proves to have real concern for Maisie. As Susanna and Beale continue their wayward parenting ways, Margo and Lincoln—often thrown together on Maisie’s behalf—not only deepen their affection for the girl, but are attracted to one another as well. Both Vanderham and Skarsgard are excellent here, playing their parts with a vulnerability that indicates that while Margo and Lincoln are certainly more dependable than the guardians they’re replacing, they’re also flawed and capable of making mistakes and putting their own needs above the child’s. In other words, they’re human too.
While Doyne and Cartwright follow the narrative arc of the book fairly closely in the early going, they depart from it substantially at the close, reducing the character of Maisie’s new governess Mrs. Wix (Paddy Croft) to a mildly amusing joke and simplifying the conclusion about the young Maisie’s choice of whom to stay with. But though the ending is more conventionally happy than the one James contrived, it still retains some of the ambiguity the novel conveyed about the girl’s future.
“What Maisie Knew” is shot by Giles Nuttgens with a naturalistic grace that mirrors Aprile’s performance, while the production design by Kelly McGehee captures nicely the upper-class milieu. Their craft contributions, along with Nick Urata’s supportive score and Madeleine Gavin’s expert editing, help bolster the underlying dread that a viewer can’t help but feel about the child’s welfare as the adults responsible for her go about their business, often oblivious to her needs. Though Maisie copes as best she can in every circumstance, the sense of dependence that comes out in moments of crisis is palpable.
One might compare “What Maisie Knew” to “Kramer vs. Kramer,” the Robert Benton drama that swept the Oscars in 1979. This is the better film, more subtle and less manipulative, and placing the emphasis where it belongs, on the child rather than on the parents fighting over her (or him). And it inevitably makes you think about the millions of youngsters who live in circumstances less materially and emotionally supportive than Maisie’s, but face a similar, and often worse, familial reality. It’s a chilling subtext to McGehee and Siegel’s film that leaves one—as James’s book does—with an unsettled feeling, despite the apparent sense of closure.