Film Review: What Maisie Knew
Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel
By the end of this excellent cinematic adaptation of Henry James’ 1897 novel, you don’t actually get to know what Maisie knows. But you do find out very clearly how much you despise her parents for their childishness, petty jealousies and profound inability to act like responsible adults around their six-year-old daughter.
Susanna (Julianne Moore) is a self-pitying, self-absorbed rock singer; her husband, Beale (Steve Coogan), is an acerbic, self-absorbed international art dealer. Maisie (Onata Aprile) appears to be little more than an encumbrance to each of them, liable to be shunted off at a moment’s notice into the care of anyone who will have her.
After her parents’ acrimonious divorce, it is Maisie’s good fortune that those closest at hand are kind adults. Her nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), and bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) — who quickly become Susanna and Beale’s spouses for reasons of convenience — step into the vacuum of parental care even though it is inconvenient for both of them.
As well as excellent performances all round, what makes Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s film succeed is that they avoid putting adult observations into their young protagonist’s mouth; in fact, they avoid having Maisie articulate anything about her predicament, which is exactly how most children suffer — in silence.
Mostly, the filmmakers simply observe Maisie observing the world and we have to guess what effect her grossly inadequate parents are having on her.
Nevertheless, her attachment to Lincoln and Margo and the joy she exudes in their company tells us everything we need to know about what a child needs to grow and thrive.