What Maisie Knew is an old story, but it feels fresh. I don’t say that because this adaptation of Henry James’s novel has been set in contemporary New York but rather because its truths are ones we pretend to ignore, hope will go away, and hence have to be taught over and over again.
Kids see, hear, and understand as much as we fear and more than we let ourselves admit. Not everyone should be a parent. Character is less about who we are when nobody is looking than what we do when we don’t have the luxury of being left to ourselves. Tomorrow is the day we will start being better, doing better, rolling up our sleeves and digging in for the hard grind of honoring the promises made flippantly and frantically today.
Henry James is one of the pillars of American literature, but his works have never translated well to film. Bogdonovich’s Daisy Miller has its pleasures–and defenders–but it struggles at times to render the novella’s opacity in what is, admittedly, a concrete medium. The Heiress and its modern remake, Washington Square, are wonderful showpieces for actresses making star turns, as was Jane Campion’s adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady. None of James’s books are really plot driven, however, and perhaps only “The Turn of the Screw” fits comfortably enough into a film-friendly genre (horror) to make for a smooth transition to the big screen.
James’s literary realism, the realm of small incidents, neutral narrators, and astute observers, has enticed and eluded some awfully talented screenplay writers. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala tried at least twice to adapt his work (The Bostonians, The Golden Bowl) , but the Merchant-Ivory team never quite managed to capture James the way they did E. M. Forster. Actually, if I had to think of the film in recently memory that I’ve found the most Jamesian, I might pick Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking, a film which the director said was written by starting with objects and then thinking about how various family members interacted with them. In What Maisie Knew, the object is Maisie herself, and screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright, wisely choose to let Maisie remain more or less an object, trusting the audience to understand the layers of trauma, hurt, and confusion that are accumulating without the need of precocious speeches forcing the child to verbalize for the audience’s benefit what the scenes have already made clear. Besides, there is a poignancy in Maisie’s reticence. At that age the child is more confused than calculating, and Maisie’s tendency to adapt to and even protect her parents (mom especially) seems quite realistic. In the midst of chaos, children seek stability and if that is nowhere to be found, respite. What is true, if stated or acted upon, would cause more disruption, and the child learns quickly what questions are rhetorical, which tones signal which expected responses.
In addition to the script, the acting helps the film excel. Julianne Moore gives a tremendous–and generous–performance as Susanna, Maisie’s narcissistic mother. A less confident actress might have been tempted to turn Susanna either into a more showy shrew or an outright monster. Susanna here is bad enough, neglect can be more painful than abuse, but we sense that her woeful parental deficiencies have not escaped her notice, however much she may have repressed or rationalized them, and that her manipulations of her her daughter are more habitual than they are hostile.
That’s not an excuse, of course. Perhaps the one way in which the modern setting doesn’t quite resonate is in the way that the parents manage to avoid child services, even in situations where one would anticipate that any sensible adult finding Maisie would call the police rather than just take her home with them until her parents show up. Perhaps that’s a class issue, or maybe its a commentary on people’s reluctance to appeal to a higher authority if those they interact with don’t look like child endangerers. (Or, perhaps it is an oblique commentary on the fact that in an age where so many children are abused in so many horrific ways, neglect gets thought of with a less critical eye).
The film’s conclusion may be a bit too pat for its introduction — I would have liked to have seen a bit more ambiguity implied. It appears to endorse a reading of the narrative that Maisie’s situation has stabilized, which is defensible, but which glosses over unresolved questions raised by the narrative about where commitment comes from and what binds us to other people. Without a clear answer to these questions, any anticipation that the bonds we see at the end of the film will be any healthier or any stronger than the ones so easily severed early on is more of a hope than an expectation.
We want to hope for that, though, because the story would be too heartbreaking without it. As it is, it is heartbreaking enough, accentuated all the more by the lack of histrionics. Sometimes those who are hurting the most are not necessarily the ones who cry the loudest.