I first became interested in reading Henry James because he was a great literary friend of Edith Wharton, my favorite novelist. (You can read briefly about their correspondence here or if JSTOR is more your thing, check out this article).
When I first read What Maisie Knew, I was struck by how funny it was. Sure, there are long, run on sentences and convoluted paragraphs, like lots of classic literature, but I didn’t think James was the worst offender in that regard. It almost made it more fun to find the hidden humor. James is a keen observer of personality with a sharp wit, which made what could have been a dull piece of “classic” literature fun and enjoyable to read.
The novel is about a young girl whose parents divorce, remarry, and use her to make each other’s lives miserable. She is a precocious young girl who understands far more than the adults realize, which is probably why they continue to have very inappropriate conversations in front of her.
It’s startling how relevant this story is 100 years later. Julianne Moore plays aging rock star Susanna, who has ended her dramatic relationship with narcissistic art dealer, Maisie’s father, Beale, played by Steve Coogan. Though neither are particularly present in Maisie’s life, they both want to retain custody to hurt the other, and Maisie ends up in the middle, shuffled back and forth between them.
When Beale marries Maisie’s nanny, Margo, in order to support his bid for custody, Susanna in turn marries bartender Lincoln. Unlike Margo, who seems to think Beale married her for love, Lincoln is flat out paid for this arrangement and Susanna has little fondness for him, and actually gets jealous when he forms a close relationship with Maisie. Joanna Vanderham’s portrayal of Margo is utterly forgettable, but Alexander Skarsgard’s chemistry with Onata Aprile as Maisie is moving and touching.
Even with four adults in her life, Maisie is routinely forgotten, overlooked, and dismissed. Though her parents try to buy her affection with gifts, it’s obvious to her that Margo and Lincoln are the ones who really care about her. It’s heart-breaking to watch Maisie be disappointed or hurt by her parents, yet uplifting to see how resilient she is, and how attached she becomes to Lincoln, who truly cares for her, going so far as to tell Susanna that she doesn’t deserve her.
The film adaptation lacks the humor of the book, but makes up for it with an amazing performance from Onata Aprile. Her expressions and nuanced delivery perfectly captured so much emotion, it was hard to believe she really was such a young girl. The film captures the viewpoint of a child perfectly, focusing on Maisie’s routine and the way she survives amidst so much turmoil. The camera angles are often low, from her height, and the director wasn’t afraid of quiet scenes depicting her making sandwiches, playing with toys, or scared and alone in an unfamiliar place.
This is a quiet but dramatic movie that breaks your heart but leaves you feeling hopeful. Unlike the book, which follows Maisie into her teenage years, the movie adaptation focuses on a few months in her life. The movie is perfect for those who enjoy character driven stories rather than fast-paced plotting. I felt so fortunate to see it while I was in New York.