What Maisie Knew – Scott McGehee and David Siegel take on Henry James. (film review)

Please note, this review is a discussion on the film that includes spoilers if you are not familiar with the book.

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What Maisie Knew is a novel written by Henry James in 1897 that is meant to be a harsh criticism on a British society that had no child welfare policies, and used children, just as it did all social functioning, as a mask for behavior that the same society would criticize if it were brought to the fore. Children were treated like property and part of the structure of an individuals wealth or prominent social position. They were also used as a kind of chaperone, in that it was assumed that children carried with them a morality, or at least an obligation toward a certain morality, because they were free from the possibility of sin in a Christian society. Having a child in the house was similar to an older woman accompanying a young couple on their date. What a good appearance gives you is a greater opportunity to get away with anti-social behavior, whether it be taking a lover, sleeping with the help, squandering financial resources or befriending a person from an undesirable class. It is the use of the child as this shield and even the attitude toward children, as if they can impose a morality upon their surroundings that Henry James was objecting to in What Maisie Knew.

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Now, in 2013 Scott McGehee and David Siegel of The Deep End and Suture, adapt the novel, via a screenplay by Nancy Doyne and Caroll Cartwright. The Deep End, starring Tilda Swinton, is another film about complicated relationships between parents and children, this time with the mother doing too much to save and protect her son, and is a film remake of the novel The Blank Wall, previously filmed as The Reckless Moment by the great Max Ophlus. Familial relations are emerging as a favorite theme of McGehee and Siegel, though it is still ambitious to take on a Henry James’ novel that spans (what appears to be) around twelve years of Maisie’s life, includes the introduction of the convoluted sentence structure that James is so famous for and plays tricks with point of view. There are strong themes in the James novel that do translate to our current day, but in many ways the film seems to slide away from the impact of the novel, taking cover in the very safety James criticized.

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The points of departure between the film and the book speak to some of these weaknesses in the film. Mrs Wix, an essential character in the novel and the only person in the end Maisie can trust (and the person she really chooses) is reduced, literally, to a blur behind the central characters of the film. Mrs Wix is unattractive, and this point is crucial in the James novel, for she has more substance than all the other adults in Maisie’s life, all of whom are physically beautiful. This speaks to the surface as a way of concealing an ugly interior, one of the important themes of the book.  McGehee and Siegel don’t just ignore this important point by eliminating Mrs Wix, they make everyone (including Maisie herself) physically attractive, presumably to make a more aesthetically pleasing film. In this way, James’ criticism is not just ignored, but indulged in, pandering to a societal need for beauty.

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Another peculiar altered point, is the addition of occupations of Beale as an art dealer and Susanna as a rock star, both in the fading end of their careers. In the novel, they are the wealthy elite, neither seem to work, and in fact spend their time traveling abroad, mostly so they can act out anti-social behavior that is not as easily tolerated in the British society they are from. To paint the two of them as very wealthy artists is a peculiar shift that comes across as a political criticism of the work they each perform. Julianne Moore is particularly searing as Susanna, constantly on tour, trying to revamp an artistic career that she seems as incapable of accurately assessing as she is able to read her relationships. Her performance is characteristically powerful, even if she does come across as an aged Alanis Morissette from the Jagged Little Pill days, but it makes a statement (perhaps in spite of its intentions) about the viability of having an artistic career and a child. Steve Coogan’s Beale is a little more like James’ Beale in his repeated philandering and uselessness, but again, any focus on his career as an art dealer is dealt with negatively. It is difficult to know what the point of this judgement is, outside of a bland right-wing criticism of any artists trying to raise children.

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With the virtual departure of Mrs Wix, comes the prominence of Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) and Margo (Joanna Vanderham) as Maisie’s saviors.  Rather than simplify the story, as I alluded to above, it obliterates the point of image and using children as part of an image, and ends up strangely highlighting the fact (to posit against the rich artistic parents) that the poor hard-working nanny and bar tender are the “real” people of substance. This is a problematic departure from James’ novel and point.  Maisie chooses Mrs Wix in the novel, and rejects Lincoln and Margo just as she does her parents, emphasizing the cross societal problem of child abuse and neglect. McGehee and Siegel brush this off in favor of the gloss they place over Margo and Lincoln and their stunning beach house they miraculously inhabit as squatters.

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The final problem I have with this film is the treatment of Maisie herself. Despite James’ protestations and the central theme of the novel, Onata Aprile is constantly painted in an angelic style, her prettiness, beautiful clothes and at one point even wings, used to manipulate the viewer to a fetishization that Jame’s spoke out against directly. In the novel, the point of view is James himself, making comment on each scene Maisie appears in. Without this narrative technique, Aprille’s Maisie comes across as a girl of outstanding maturity and the bastion of morality, cleansing every scene with her angelic goodness. The Maisie presented is precisely the Maisie James didn’t want, a little beacon of morality flitting about the immoral adult world, her presence bestowing goodness on every adult whose presence she graces.

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Strangely, What Maisie Knew turns out to be the opposite of what Henry James tried to reveal; that child abuse and neglect come from a deep source of using children as a moral facade and treating them like a chattel or possession. With the films manipulation of the child, its refusal to allow an ugly person on the set and its criticism of wealth, only when it comes from artistic expression, it has served to recreate the society James hoped to expose for its hypocrisy. If What Maisie Knew seems like a timeless tale, it is because we have learned very little in the one hundred years since James wrote his novel.

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