What Maisie Knew

You're just like my little baby
Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgaard, Onata Aprile, Joanna Vanderham, Steve Coogan
The Setup: 
Girl is shuffled between her divorcing parents.

Being an avid reader of Henry James, I was interested in this adaptation, especially as it is of one of his lesser-known works. It's no problem that it updates it to the present day, although that means shifting the scene from one in which divorce was an unusual and shocking phenomenon that brought with it a bit of shame, because the novel is primarily about its young heroine's developing consciousness and perspective on what is happening around her, hence the emphasis of the title. But the resulting film loses so much of what makes the novel what it is that ultimately they might have been better served just making it an original, quite good film about the effect of divorce and narcissistic parents on a child [perhaps Kramer vs Kramer II: The Quickening], instead of an inadequate Henry James adaptation.

The film starts well with a series of casual, unstructured scenes depicting Maisie's life with her parents, a rock musician, Susanne, played by Julianne Moore, and an art dealer (I guess?) father played by Steve Coogan. They have an outrageously spacious and charming West Village apartment, showing them as extremely affluent. It's not long before Maisie wakes to find a strange man working at their door locks, then later hears Dad pounding outside as he tries to get in, Mom telling her to sleep through it as she hears them both screaming in the other room. This seems to be the irony of the title, a response to the idea that children don't know what's going on around them, and adult topics can be discussed in their presence without their having a clue what is going on. Of course, it might have had more resonance and provide more revelation in the atmosphere in which it was published, when children were considered to be much less perceptive than we regard them today.

Soon Dad is trying to pick Maisie up from daycare before Mom can get there, and after some deliberations custody is split between them. Maisie is surprised to find that Margo, her nanny from Mom's house, is now her Dad's girlfriend and soon to be wife. Before you know it, Mom has married Lincoln, charming bartender played by Alexander Skarsgaard. At first Maisie is very unwelcoming to Lincoln, but he soon charms her with his genuine affection and attention, leading Mom to suddenly snap "What am I, invisible? You don't win points for making her fall in love with you." Yep, Mom's a keeper, as she will continue to demonstrate.

Soon both Mom and Dad are dumping Maisie on their new spouses without a thought. Then Dad is three days late in picking her up, with no explanation (and significant snot flung at Lincoln). Then Lincoln has to go to work, and has to go to Margo, since Mom is nowhere to be found. But Margo has been locked out by Dad, who is on vacation and, although they are married, failed to put her on the lease. This is the beginning of Margo and Lincoln hanging out together, and anyone knows where this is headed.

Then Dad has to move to England, and that's pretty much it for him. Nice knowing you, child! Then Mom has to go on tour, and dumps Maisie on Lincoln. In here we have the highly-metaphorical (but I don't want to be too snide, because it is an effective metaphor) of the $1 turtle bought on the street, symbol of a life easily bought, little valued, and often thrown away or ignored. Now comes the first of Julianne Moore's awesome scenes (if you're going to see the movie, maybe skip past the spoilers for now?) as Margo and Lincoln are aghast to find that she is BACK in town without telling them (or picking up Maisie), and not only that, she's with another man! She goes for the narcissism gold by not showing a shred of shame, but high-pitched OUTRAGE that anyone should chastise her, and even screams at a car--that she is standing in front of, directly in traffic--to pipe down, "I have a child here!"

She was just back in town for a few days on her tour, and when she has to go in the middle of the night, she just drops Maisie outside Lincoln's restaurant, without a call or warning to him! But, she will stay and "watch you go inside," because she is such a great mom! Well you guessed it, Lincoln isn't working that night, and Maisie ends up being taken in by a random waitress. I appreciate that the movie sticks with Maisie's point of view, but they could have let us know that someone TRIED to call Lincoln.

In the morning, Margo shows up and takes her to a house in Amityville... where they are haunted by the ghosts of a family mass-murdered there years before! No, not really, but how awesome would THAT have been? They settle into a lovely vacation home on the beach and have an idyllic time. Lincoln soon arrives, and Maisie realizes for the first time that they are a couple. They have more idyllic vacation and we have shots of the metaphoric turtle to show that it hasn't been forgotten. Maisie is excited about the promise of a boat ride the next day. Then, for the big finish, Mom's tour bus shows up in the middle of the night. Maisie goes out to see her, and Mom is like "come on, let's go." She has bought Maisie lots of presents, but it's soon clear that Maisie doesn't want to go with her, she wants to stay and go on the boat ride. Julianne Moore whips out her second big scene here as she has to face that her daughter doesn't want to be with her, and it's quite something. Maisie goes back in with Margo and Lincoln, and that's the end.

So it's a very good small movie, with good performances. It's a strength that it stays in Maisie's point of view, hearing fights in other rooms, suddenly finding Dad locked out, stuff that affects her that she doesn't understand. It also has a ruthless sense of Mom and Dad's narcissism, with the effective touch that they see themselves as the aggrieved parties, and are OUTRAGED that anyone should find fault with them. Moore in particular gets the better moments, and is unafraid to be a true monster, while making it clear that from her point of view, she is more sinned upon than sinning. I wish I could take her performance and put it in a movie more likely to be seen.

There are two big differences from the novel. One, the novel takes place of the course of years, and displays Maisie's maturing consciousness and growing understanding, while this one has her the same age throughout. Two, this film eliminates a key character, Mrs. Wix, who is dowdy and boring, but may ultimately be the best choice of guardian. And to a large degree the point of the novel is that, with Maisie's matured consciousness, she is better able to make a better choice of guardian. And without that stuff, it's not really an adaptation of the novel.

Worth watching (fine on video), but ultimately it might have been better for this movie to simply be a good film about a child knocked around by narcissistic parents, on which basis it would be a very strong film, as opposed to what it is now, which is a pale and wanting Henry James adaptation.

Should you watch it: 

Sure, especially if you admire Julianne Moore.