With its plot centering on the casualties of divorce—namely, a seven-year-old girl caught in the crossfire of her parents’ custody battle—Henry James’ 1897 novel What Maisie Knew lends itself particularly well to the contemporary. Following in a long line of predominantly period-faithful Jamesian pictures, Scott McGehee and David Siegel's adaptation commendably preserves the book’s child perspective even if it doesn’t quite match the characteristically dark shades of the author’s moral fare.
Opening with the bickering of Susana (Julianne Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan), we watch as Maisie (Onata Aprile) can’t help but overhear from her perch at the kitchen counter. Seemingly unfazed, the sound of the doorbell prompts her to dash up and down the stairs with the weightlessness of a wood sprite to retrieve money for the pizza delivery guy her parents are too pre-occupied to deal with.
In keeping with the upper-class milieu of James’ novels, the filmic family inhabits a high-ceilinged SoHo apartment that abounds in the trappings of childhood. Surrounded by toys, figurines, endless art supplies and whimsical costumes, Maisie has everything a little girl could ever want or need, but the camera’s emphasis on this colorful array of objects makes it clear that they are not enough. Her self-centered and neglectful parents both have jobs that frequently take them on the road—Susana is an aging rock star and Beale a successful art dealer—leaving Maisie primarily under the care of her devoted and fetching young nanny, Margot (Joanna Vanderham).
When a separation agreement is finally reached, joint custody infinitely complicates family matters. Beale marries the nanny, and Susana—in an effort to match the stability Maisie’s father seems to be providing—quickly elopes with a lanky young bartender named Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard). Maisie is left at the mercy of grown-ups who all claim to know what’s best as she struggles to understand the shifting roles of an increasing number of itinerant adults in her life.
“Everything had something behind it” James writes early on in the novel, “life was like a long, long corridor with rows of closed doors.” The image translates well onscreen: the majority of the film is spent observing Maisie observe. Curiously peering through railings, across hallways, and over countertops, she witnesses her parents’ fights and flirtations, gleaning what she can about the complexities and shortcomings of adult relationships—and of the adults themselves.
Her mother and father are equally unreliable, either late or altogether absent from school pick-ups and scheduled hand-offs, leaving Maisie alone or reliant on the kindness of strangers. Wide-eyed but not maudlin, the girl is remarkably stoic. Never kicking, screaming, or even crying audibly, she embodies the kind of unconditional love only a child can possess, wholeheartedly embracing whoever should come to retrieve her.
As Maisie, the young Aprile sets the film’s tone of restraint, which is unfortunately undermined by the frequently saccharine score and one too many slow motion sequences. Despite Julianne Moore’s not quite believable rock-star character thread, both she and Coogan deliver solid performances that effectively walks the line between drama and black humor.
Skarsgard and Vanderham are charming and convincing as the flaxen-haired guardians who prove to be much more adept at child rearing than Maisie’s biological parents. The simple moments of childhood bliss they facilitate—a day at the park, a game of monopoly, horseplay on the Highline—seem to alleviate the cumulative effect of parental neglect. Where in the novel the divorce and its aftermath places a tombstone on Maisie’s childhood, the film offers a utopian vision of an alternative family that seems to discount the old saying that you can’t choose your parents.