|Film poster for What Maisie Knew|
Henry James’s 1897 What Maisie Knew is a brave choice for adaptation. The novel charts the developing understanding of a young girl (Maisie) who is caught between her battling parents following their separation. It’s a compelling study of growing consciousness which could be seen as offering what film can’t – direct access to a character’s thoughts. Yet there is much to attract filmmakers too. The story is fresh – easily transported from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century, and from London, to New York. The plot is salacious and the characters are at least superficially attractive – little Maisie (a spellbinding Onata Aprile) is the best-dressed child in New York, whose (step-) parents are Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgard and Joanna Vanderham.
And it’s not all about looking good. The challenge of telling this story from Maisie’s point of view leads to interesting cinematography. At times we see things literally from her angle, cameras level with adults’ waists, or moving as she sits on a swing. We become acquainted with her toys through the camera’s repeated focus on them. We watch through the cracks in doorways, and are left in the dark about what has happened in the court hearings from which Maisie has been protected (read: excluded). What remains opaque though is what exactly Maisie does know – sharing her partial knowledge of the situation she finds herself in doesn't quite give us access to a child’s method of interpreting what she sees.
Solely focussing on the love plots also cuts much which was good about the novel – Maisie’s own occasional carelessness towards the lonely Mrs Wix (who does not appear) and what she learns from this, and the detrimental effect of her parents’ selfishness on her formal education (not the case here where Maisie’s school seems positively idyllic).
James’s world is a cruel one, the lessons Maisie learns are hard. But this adaptation can’t quite bring itself to go there. There’s a lot of tear-jerking in the middle, but, ultimately, adults (the two step parents) do show responsibility, and those who don’t, particularly Maisie’s mother (Moore), recognise their failings. This makes for a saccharine and unrealistic ending, where love, romantic and familial, overcomes all other obstacles, including (in an especially un-Jamesian tough) financial ones.
I found the film enjoyable and brilliantly acted, but it won’t leave you thinking much, beyond the usual condemnation of bad parenting. Reading James forces you to think about what it means to be a person and the damage which people inflict on each other – but maybe that doesn't make for a stampede to the box office.
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What Maisie Knew was released in UK cinemas on 23rd August. It is also available on demand from the Sky Store.