What Maisie Knew takes its plot from a 1897 book by Henry James and places it in modern day New York. The transposition is almost seamless and I’m not sure I’d have suspected this wasn’t a new and original story if I hadn’t known otherwise.
I did feel there were some traits of Victorian literature in there while I was watching it but in retrospect I think I was projecting those onto the movie myself. I felt sure, for example, that the young hero would eventually be saved from the tragedy of her childhood because thats what happened in Jane Eyre or any number of Dickens books but actually Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens were writing several decades before the publication of What Maisie Knew and I was letting my jumble of knowledge about 19th century novels get in the way. Needless to say the film is best enjoyed if you can try not to do this. Henry James was in fact more a contemporary of Hardy than the Brontës or Dickens so perhaps I should have anticipated little Maisie’s fate to be more Tess and a little less Pip. (Thankfully it is neither).
One historical reflection you can allow yourself is that the original 1897 novel must have been slightly ahead of its time revolving as it does around a divorce and the effects this has on the child caught in the middle. The UK Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act had been passed forty years prior to the release of James’ novel and while divorce rates had been on the rise since that point there were still only 560 cases a year by 1900. Compare this to the figure of around 117,500 today and you can see that when James thought he was documenting an increasing trend within his society he wasn’t wrong.
Instead of trying to compare What Maisie Knew to any books written in the 1800s, you could alternatively look at it as a more realistic version of something by Roald Dahl because some of the adults here are positively beastly. Mummy is a fading rock star and Daddy is Steve Coogan and it is heartbreaking to see how their daughter is used as a pawn in their efforts to hurt one another. They are not being deliberately mean to their child anymore than she is deliberately looking to replace them but they are destructively selfish and she is irresistibly cute so both of these things happen as the story plays out. At the start of the film we see Maisie’s mother singing her the song ‘Rockabye Baby’ and you just know the ‘when the bough breaks’ metaphor is going to weigh heavy over what is to come.
All of the cast are good but a film like this always had the potential to sink under soap opera dramatics. This is avoided by centring everything around the little girl. We don’t exactly see it all from her point of view but neither do we witness anything that she doesn’t and it is handled very well. It is as though this little girl has invited us to see particular scenes in her life (which would also account for us seeing nothing but immaculate behaviour from her the entire time). This narrative device allows the audience to appreciate everything that happens and the full emotional impact it has on this child without the need for a precocious narrative voice over. Of course this also requires the casting of a great young actor and the performance given by seven year old Onata Aprile is beautifully natural and unassuming. Something that I am sure is as much down to the director as it is to her.
What Maisie Knew is a compelling, heartbreaking, moving and highly rewarding movie. I really enjoyed it and it is easily one of the best films I have seen this year. That sounds like a recommendation to me.
Is this one for the kids?
What Maisie Knew is rated 15 which I didn’t know until after I’d seen it. (This one wasn’t a cinema trip, it has been simultaneously released for rental on iTunes as well as on the big screen.) The certification surprised me a little as there is nothing here that is overly harrowing beyond the central story. There is a lot of swearing and knowing that the BBFC has very clear guidelines in this area this is clearly what pushed it above the 12A rating.
What we have here is very deliberately a film about a child made for an adult audience which is actually not that common. I think a lot of the implications of what is happening would pass over the heads of a very young audience and while I certainly wouldn’t show it to anyone below teenage, I would be curious to know what a child’s take on it would be. I guess that is kind of the point; what do children make of this stuff, what do they know?
Bechdel Test Score = 3