Film Review: “What Maisie Knew” — Henry James’ Dark Screwball Comedy

The astute filmmakers, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, seem not at all intimidated by Henry James’s formidable prose.

What Maisie Knew. Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel. At cinemas throughout New England.

By Gerald Peary

Julianne Moore and Onata Aprile in WHAT MAISIE KNEW.

I’m an avid Jamesian, but the novels I’ve got through are nineteenth-century ones. I’ve been a chicken about pecking at those infamously abstruse, post-1900 tomes, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl. I believe those who have found them both to be impossible reads. In fact, What Maisie Knew, Henry James’s 1897 work, gives a peek at what lay frighteningly ahead. A dozen pages therein are laughably incomprehensible, claustrophobic word forests, fat paragraphs without indentation breaks that feel, punitively, as if they will bull ahead forever.

But finally, end they do in What Maisie Knew, and a really engaging narrative crawls out of the thicket, a dark screwball comedy of marital failures and rebounds and more failures, a domestic farce, and, at its winning center, the sensitive tale of a sterling little girl who, like a shuttlecock, is wacked about by all the feuding, insensitive adults. Our Maisie.

What she “knows” is, at first, very little, as all the older folks hide from her what bad they are doing, including, a bit unusual for James, a heck of a lot of bed-hopping. But as the novel progresses, the very perceptive Maisie grasps more and more and more. The indulgent adults can’t help but weigh the tiny child down with their secrets, and reveal to her other people’s gross confidences. And by the end of the book, which floats through a half-dozen years, a now-adolescent Maisie really does know far more than the deluded, emotionally infantile ensemble of the grown.

A movie of What Maisie Knew? The astute filmmakers, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, seem not at all intimidated by James’s formidable prose. They decided, wisely, to simplify, simplify, starting with compressing the time of their tale to perhaps a year. Their film is a model of clarity, the story easy to follow without any sacrifice of psychology, wit, intelligence. And thanks for getting rid of Maisie’s impossible cumbersome governess, Mrs. Wix, who sits like a hen on the second half of James’s novel, stopping the story with her one-note carping.

The easiest thing about doing a movie of What Maisie Knew is updating it to today. James’s saga of selfish, arguing marrieds getting quicky divorces, taking up with anyone and everybody, ignoring their child—have you heard that one? What is problematic, if you seek an audience’s favor, is that all four of the principal adults in the book turn out pretty rotten. Maisie’s estranged parents, Beale and Ida, are, from the beginning, impossibly worthless as human beings, so our hope in reading moves to their new spouses, Miss Overmore and Sir Claude, who both, unlike her biological mom and dad, seem to care for Maisie. But both prove disappointing as caregivers and, ultimately are lacking in character and backbone. By default, Maisie gets stuck with Mrs. Wix. The end!

Should the film take a more audience-friendly route?

McGehee and Siegel offer an unapologetic house cleaning of the novel. In addition to moving the story to today’s yuppified New York, they give three of the four adult protagonists new names—only the dad remains Beale—and three of them contemporary professions. Only Miss Overmore, a governess in the book, is barely changed to Margo, a nanny. Maisie’s father, Beale (Steve Coogan), is an international businessman, always flying away somewhere. Maisie’s mother, Susanna (Julianna Moore) is a once-famous pop singer now attempting a comeback, though committed to a dreary repertoire of ’90s school-of-Pat Benatar.

WHAT MAISIE LEARNS — child as shuttlecock.

When Beale and Susanna divorce, they quickly remarry. Beale weds Margo, so she will watch over Maisie while he traverses the globe with his cell phone. Susanna gets tied to Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a mellow bartender because—who knows why? Her insatiable neediness?

As James deems, Maisie’s parents are just as awful a husband and wife in their second marriages. As in the book, their crapped-on partners meet and, no surprise, fall for each other. And they seem to really care about Maisie. And . . . I should stop here and not reveal if McGehee and Siegel go with the original melancholy conclusion or go feel-good and rescue dear Maisie from her years of neglect.

I will say that the last 10 minutes of the film are the small weakness in an otherwise brilliant, accomplished art movie. The four adult actors are delicious, and Onata Aprile as Maisie is just such a find, a sweet, expressive little trouper, who does seem “to know.” When she says of her mom’s new man, Lincoln, “I love him!” Onata’s sincerity—and wisdom—melt your stony heart.


  1. Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on May 27, 2013 at 10:16 am

    Gerald and others of faint heart should gird their loins and tackle post-1900 Henry James. Among his prose works approaching that period that would serve as a nifty warm-up exercise I would recommend the relatively little known but terrific 1898 story “In the Cage.” The long yarn is as close as James ever got to depicting (with insight and sympathy) a working class tragedy — it centers on “the inner life of a young woman trapped in a dehumanizing job at a postal-and-telegraph office.”

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