What Maisie Knew

Julian Wood shares his thoughts on FilmInk\'s Movie of the Month.

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American literature would not be the same without Henry James. Generations have admired his stern elegant prose and the refined cruelty with which he dissects the foibles of his characters. These are not qualities that necessarily lend themselves to film but, nevertheless, his stories do sometimes get the celluloid treatment. What Masie Knew is one of his shorter books but is not lightweight. It is in some ways a rather grim story as it revolves around the disintegration of a marriage as told from the point of view of the seven-year-old Maise.

In this version, the two directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End) have transposed the action to contemporary New York. Julianne Moore plays aging rock star Susanna. She swaggers into the film wearing her hipster leather jacket like some latter-day Patti Smith. It is quite clear to the audience that she is more interested in being ‘free’ than actually attending to her domestic situation. Moore is a really good actress with plenty of cred but she has somehow decided to play this role as if her purpose was to annoy the audience as much as her ex-husband. Opposite her, in every sense, is her newly-shed partner Beale who is an art dealer. Beale is played by British comedian Steve Coogan in one of his rare forays into straight acting. Coogan is the master of the throwaway line, as anyone who saw him in Michael Winterbottom’s hilarious and partly improvised road comedy The Trip will know.

As things unfold, the older couple are attracted to two younger people. In Susanna’s case, it is Lincoln (the wonderfully versatile Alexander Skarsgard from True Blood) who, with his flop of blond hair and gentle manner, seems far too nice for this rock cougar. Beale is attracted to Margo (Joanna Vanderham) but in the way that he treats her she seems more like a younger trophy than a serious partner. Watching all this with a beady but not jaded eye is young Maisie (Onata Aprile). The young actor is a natural and she brings freshness and a convincing sense of childish curiosity to the convoluted and evasive behaviours of the middle-aged babies that surround her. She is the moral centre of the novel and the film. Given that she is only seven and the adults have had a long time to learn to be more mature, this gives us the pretty strong clue (as James intended) that they are mostly pretty vain and misguided.

This is the problem with the story itself in a way. Our sympathies are easily steered towards the traduced Maisie, but it isn’t pleasant to be in the company of bickering individuals. A certain amount of softening towards the end does not really change our view. These are irritating and self-obsessed people. If we met them at a party, we would move away after a short conversation. Here we are stuck with them and watching them claw and scratch their way through the sad business of splitting is not a comfortable experience.           

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