Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s What Maisie Knew (2012) is a contemporary adaptation of the classic Henry James novel. The duo have chosen to transplant the story to present-day New York, allowing them to explore the lifestyles of the once well-off, now struggling to regain their equilibrium in the midst of a global recession. Six-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) watches on as her self-absorbed parents tear each other apart before agreeing to split. Maisie’s former rock-star mother, Susannah (Julianne Moore), is trying to make a come-back, while her art-dealer father, Beale (Steve Coogan), is largely absent.
As her parents fight over custody and score cheap shots against each other in the courts, Maisie finds herself increasingly drawn to her nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), who Beale subsequently marries, and Susannah’s new boyfriend Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård). As her career takes off again, Susannah’s narcissism knows no bounds. She expects kind-hearted Lincoln to organise his bar work around Maisie, and yet is resentful of their growing attachment. She showers Maisie with presents, but is happy to leave her daughter unattended if she threatens her schedule. Beale, meanwhile, prepares to return to his native London where, he believes, he’d be better off without the burdens of marriage or a child.
It’s soon pretty obvious that Lincoln and Margo, badly treated and wounded by their partners, will end up together but this doesn’t affect the pleasure of watching their emotional journey. Their relationship, and how it affects Maisie, becomes the film’s central conceit, and we are largely left guessing as to what her final choice will be. Towards the end of What Maisie Knew, there is a moment when Susannah, tears in her eyes, clutches her daughter tightly to her and tells her that once she was exactly like her. This is the crux of Susannah’s failure as a parent. She wants only a mirror to herself and cannot cope with a needy, fragile, questioning daughter who desperately needs stability and consistency in order to feel loved and grounded.
The narrative’s linchpin is Maisie and much of the film’s momentum comes from Aprile’s ability to channel her quicksilver state of mind. Aprile certainly doesn’t disappoint in her portrayal of a child negotiating an alien world; her initial wide-eyed innocence, her simple needs, her growing psychological awareness and her gradual understanding of the serendipity and unreliability of the adults around her. Our young protagonist’s rite of passage is the emotional heart of What Maisie Knew, and how she will use the knowledge she gains becomes its central conflict.