I have not read Henry James’ novel from which the film is adapted so I’m in no position to evaluate how faithful or true it is to the original novel or how well it is updated. On its own terms, the film is well-intentioned, serious, worthy. If effort were all, it would be wonderful.
The structure is classically symmetrical: Four adults, two younger, two older; four couplings; one dissolves at the beginning, the other begins at the end. One child to be tossed around amongst them.
The structure is filled out by a straightforward story. Susanna (Julianne Moore) is a rock star. Her husband, Beale (Steve Coogan) is an art dealer. The milieu is well-to-do but bohemian Manhattan. The film begins with the end of their relationship and the beginning of their brutal, acrimonious and selfish custody battle over their daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile). Margo (Joanna Vanderham), the nanny, is at all times concerned with Maisie’s feelings and need. She initially offers stability but then gets married to Maisie’s father and becomes caught in the crossfire of Susanna and Beale’s selfish hatred. Susanna also marries someone, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgärd), a tender-hearted hunk of a bartender and, like Margo, considerably younger. By the end of the film, it is Lincoln and Margo, now a couple, who are de facto doing the parenting the biological parents are too self-involved to provide.
How divorce affects a child is not a new theme in American Cinema: Mildred Pearce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), The Parent Trap (David Swift, 1961 and Mancy Meyer, 1998), Kramer vs Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979), Stepmom (Chris Columbus, 1998) and many others have in different ways touched on the theme. But cinema has rarely explored the theme as intricately as What Maisie Knew does. Susanna and Beale profess love for Maisie, and the film is complex enough to show us that they do indeed love their child. However, it also shows us how they see that child mainly in relation to themselves, as an extension, rather than as a separate consciousness and then only in the odd moments they do in fact happen to think of her. Neither acknowledges the child as having needs and indeed feelings outside their own presence or perception.
Susanna and Beale constantly declare their love for Maisie, indeed violently fight with each other for her possession, but the violence of their struggle with each other is itself a demonstration of their lack of duty and responsibility towards the child and of their own egocentrism. Is love pure feeling or is it feeling made manifest in actions; do you still love your child if you neglect it? How much do you love your child if the fulfillment of your needs is at the expense of theirs? I’m sure Maisie’s father thinks he doesn’t love her less when he decides that his business will go better if he moves back to England and thus really can’t be part of her life, at least not on a regular basis any more. I’m sure Susanna’s career requires that she go on tour. Both parents ‘love’ their child but see themselves in difficult situations in which they think they’re doing the best they can. However, the film shows us they can indeed do much better. And little Maisie knows it.
The film depicts the situation from Maisie’s vantage point literally and figuratively: her point of view is privileged and the camera is often placed at her eye-level to show us the action. Maisie is a warm, open, trusting and intelligent child. She watches and she sees, and slowly we see that she understands much more than a child should, and finally, we realise that she might even know and understand more than her parents. Onata Abrile, big eyes on that baby face, brings to mind Ana Torrent in Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, Spain, 1963), and seeing her is one of the film’s pleasures; her little arms reaching out for whoever’s handy for a hug, the eyes watching and weighed-down by the burden of knowing, and her little hand encased in Skarsgärd massive paw are moments that stay and resonate.
The rest of the performances are variable. Julianne Moore is never for one moment believable as a rock star, and the bit where we see her singing at the studio with what sounds like her voice, is pretty terrible (though of course that hasn’t stopped rock stars from being rock stars in the past); however, that aside, she’s not afraid of playing unlikeable and she screeches at her husband, cheats on her lover, and goes on tour with an abandon that always seems true to the character whilst also enjoyable to watch. She’s also very gentle and affectionate when she’s alone with her girl, and has a truly great moment where she goes to pick up her child from her former nanny and Lincoln and realizes with horror that she now makes Maisie afraid.
Skarsgärd is a pleasure to watch as well. I’ve never seen him this boyish on screen. Graphically, his enormous height contrasts well with tiny Abrile, and both are at their most appealing and vulnerable when shown together. Tender, sweet, responsible; he’s the man Susanna really doesn’t deserve. Joanna Vanderham is technically proficient, very nurturing with Maisie and a good match for Lincoln (what is incomprehensible is why someone so responsible and sensible would take up with Beale). Steve Coogan has been getting good reviews for his playing of Beale but I find him opaque in the part; Coogan traffics, and succeeds in irony, detachment, distanciation. He does technically convey the emotions his character’s supposed to feel but always at a distance; he never lets you in and, perhaps because of that, you never feel that that character is a person rather than Coogan acting out a set of character traits.
The film has many virtues. It does makes one think about love, relationships, parenting, responsibility and it treats those themes complexly. It has some good performances. Though not visually dazzling, it has some memorable images. The main problem I think is that it is too restrained. It’s dealing with material that borders on the melodramatic and doesn’t want to go there. But restraint in a film such as this should mean not to manipulate the audience falsely into emotion rather than simply abstaining from the attempt altogether. It is often through feeling that films get us to think. The main characters in What Maisie Knew deserve a tear. The film’s unwillingness to grant it feels overly detached and rather cold. A pity.