Review: What Maisie Knew (McGehee & Siegel, 2012)

Still from the movie What Maisie Knew

I was feeling unwell one day and ended up watching this movie on Netflix’s recommendation (based on my viewing of Short Term 12 a while ago). What a mistake.

The film is hardly worth a review, except to warn you off of it. What Maisie Knew is a loose update of Henry James’s novel of the same name. It centers around a precocious little girl (relative newcomer Onata Aprile) whose rock star mother (Susanna, played by Julianne Moore) and art dealer father (Beale, played by Philomena‘s Steve Coogan) undergo a toxic divorce, putting young Maisie in the middle of their feuding. Susanna is vindictive, egotistical, jealous, and petty; Beale sarcastic, belittling, and smug. Neither seem to have any redeeming qualities–they get progressively worse, in fact, as the movie progresses–though the screenplay makes a half-hearted attempt to absolve Susanna through her somewhat anxious, self-serving love for her daughter and Beale through his abstract, distant affection. Susanna and Beale are flat, uninteresting characters whose antics serve no other purpose than to get a cheap rise out of the audience. The only surprise from these two is that their marriage could have lasted as long as it has, given the almost farcical noxiousness of their fights. Both are irresponsible parents, relying on their new, young spouses (Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham), whom they almost immediately begin mistreating, to care for their daughter. Somehow the wise, almost saint-like Maisie escapes acquiring any of their terrible qualities: she is the world’s most patient, understanding  child.

Having some familiarity with Henry James’s penetrating prose, I have to assume the film’s shallowness is to be blamed on the screenplay. Of course, James was always a lover of intrigue. (Need I recall the plot of Wings of the Dove, which was also made into a movie, but a much better one starring Helena Bonham Carter back before she only played witches and harpies? A secretly betrothed couple, cultured but impoverished, scheme to seduce a young, ill heiress in order to inherit her money.) But James’s novels always succeeded in spite of, not because of, their scandalous plots. This film adaptation of What Maisie Knew brings none of his richness of character nor his complex social analyses. It is a tawdry, unforgivably hollow film.

I didn’t think I would need to write this warning, but a quick internet search showed me otherwise: the movie premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival to effusive reviews, and critics have been consistently positive ever since. As a result, I thought it would be unconscionable not to add my view to the opposing camp. Don’t waste your time on this film.

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