What Maisie Knew has its heart in the right place. The sad fact is, however, that it’s undone by what comes off as desperation to contemporise. Based on the 1897 Henry James novella, the story has been revamped somewhat for the 21st Century, and therein many of its greatest problems lie.
From the perspective of young Maisie (the angelic Onata Aprile) we see a marriage crumble. Her mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), is an ageing rock singer who oscillates between sufficient motherly affection and clichéd parent-as-musician neglect. Her father, simply known as Beale (Steve Coogan), is a floundering businessman who oscillates between mild fatherly affection and clichéd parent-as-businessman neglect.
As they battle over custody, both Susanna and Beale begin to use Maisie as a pawn in their bidding war. A quiet, observant child, Maisie watches as her parents remarry as much out of spite as anything else; her mother opts for Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a caring, unassuming bartender, while daddy opts for the slightly ickier route of Maisie’s nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham).
As both of Maisie’s biological parents shirk their responsibilities for varying reasons – Susanna goes on tour, Beale travels for business – Lincoln and Margo, predictably, grow together, their sweetness and love for Maisie drawing them together. It’s an ultimately melodramatic premise played oddly straight, leaving the better part of the film to lurch through tedious reiterations of the same theme.
That theme, of course, is that parents who are irresponsible are bad. If there were any more nuanced cultural elements to James’ novella, they’re unclear here; Maisie seems preternaturally intelligent and intuitive, which only makes the whole thing more difficult to comprehend. How did such a lovely, quiet child result from two heinous, horrible people?
Neither Moore, who is really above this sort of thing, nor Coogan are able to give their characters any dimension (the former is woefully miscast), so they wallow in stereotype until it’s time to shout at each other again. These people are so insanely narcissistic and uncaring that it’s exhausting, especially when played out at such length. Had the source material been adapted for a time when divorce weren’t such a naturalised element of society, perhaps their shared hysteria may have had more dramatic impact.
There is, however, genuine empathy in the way Margo and Lincoln come together to care for Maisie, who is made a surprisingly magnetic figure by Onata Aprile in a great child performance. It’s also thanks to solid work from both Skarsgard and Vanderham, both of whom are essentially batted about as toys by their new spouses. That they gradually drift together to complete the love quadrangle is, well, fine, but pretty on-the-nose.
It’s not that What Maisie Knew isn’t important, but its characters are so entombed in their own upper-middle class white privilege that the whole enterprise feels vastly overblown. The production design of the various apartments is breath-taking, and it becomes immediately clear that Maisie never has, and perhaps never will as a child, wanted for anything.
And that’s problematic, insofar as it makes everything that happens seem whiningly trivial. No child should suffer because of who their parents are, but at the same time, Maisie leads such an otherwise easy life that it’s difficult to consider this to be suffering, much less suffering of any particular magnitude.
In Maisie’s world, everyone is white, everyone is well-to-do, and everyone treats her like a precious gift. Wading into this world of absurd privilege is interesting at first but mostly monotonous to the point of blandness, from the wistful, sun-dappled cinematography to the tinkly score. The abrupt carelessness with which the film concludes more or less confirms that it doesn’t really care about saying anything other than what it did in its first half hour. In the end, What Maisie Knew is just too simplistic to matter.
Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.