When I posted a book versus film review of Gatsby I copped out and didn’t pick one over the other. I’m doing that again with the recent movie adaptation of the Henry James classic, What Maisie Knew.
James is without question my favourite classic author. A number of his stories have been made into films over the last forty years, notably The Portrait of a Lady starring Nicole Kidman and The Golden Bowl starring Uma Thurman (I didn’t care for the movie version of Washington Square starring Jennifer Jason Leigh at all, nor The Wings of a Dove starring Helena Bonham Carter).
Film directors generally stick to the period piece when bringing James’s stories to the screen although all that changes with What Maisie Knew directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel.
It’s the story of a thoroughly modern, mean divorce set against a rock’n’roll New York backdrop. Constantly clutching their mobile phones and taking both sly and overt verbal digs at each other are Maisie’s parents, played brilliantly by Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan. Staying true to James’s story, Maisie becomes the pawn in a bitter, nasty battle .
“Crudely as they had calculated they were at first justified by the event: she was the little feathered shuttlecock they could fiercely keep flying between them.”
There are lots of reoccurring symbols woven into the film – the parents constantly distracted by their phones while Maisie waits patiently by their side; the number of scenes that include Maisie going to sleep and waking up (where? And to what?) are clever – Moore singing Maisie to sleep in the opening scene with a lullaby immediately sets the viewer on edge – it’s saccharine, it’s insincere and Maisie is wise to it.
What’s brought to life so perfectly on the screen is the heartbreaking neglect of a sweet little kid – surrounded by adults, Maisie quickly learns that the ones who truly care for her are not her biological family at all. The scene in which Maisie first meets Lincoln (in the book the character is Sir Claude) was shattering. Which brings me to Onata Aprile, the young actress playing Maisie – could she be one of the youngest ever Oscar winners (she’s seven years old)? Astounding. See it.
After her parents' bitter divorce, young Maisie Farange finds herself turned into a 'little feathered shuttlecock' to be swatted back and forth by her selfish mother, Ida, and her vain father, Beale, who value her only as a means of provoking one another. And when both take lovers and remarry, Maisie-solitary, observant and wise beyond her years- is drawn into an entangledAfter her parents' bitter divorce, young Maisie Farange finds herself turned into a 'little feathered shuttlecock' to be swatted back and forth by her selfish mother, Ida, and her vain father, Beale, who value her only as a means of provoking one another. And when both take lovers and remarry, Maisie-solitary, observant and wise beyond her years- is drawn into an entangled adult world of intrigue and sexual betrayal, until she is finally compelled to choose her own future. Published in 1897 when Henry James was becoming increasingly experimental with narrative technique and fascinated by the idea of the child's-eye view, What Maisie Knew is a subtle, intricate yet devastating portrayal of an innocent adrift in a corrupt society....more
Paperback, 275 pages
Published January 7th 1986 by Penguin Classics (first published 1897)