Somewhere in childhood, most of us seem to lose that sense of wonder that comes with deciphering meaning previously hidden to us. It could have been something an adult said that we didn’t understand (and weren’t supposed to) or something that we saw happening but didn’t quite see at the time. As we watch What Maisie Knew, we’re reminded that what’s behind these moments of misunderstanding is often the pure joy of discovery.
Even when she doesn’t like what she has discerned, we can tell that Maisie (Onata Aprile) is proud to have discerned it. It’s a good feeling for the little girl and the viewer, who can’t help but cheer for her while disparaging the deplorable behavior of her parents. These moments of joy, though, are only moments. Again and again the film reminds us that the happiness of having found something out is ephemeral because the more weighty consequences of knowledge tend to be immediate.
From the outset, it’s clear that What Maisie Knew will offer us these moments of joy, but that they will be censored by a much deeper melancholy that runs through every frame of the movie. An adaptation of Henry James’ 1897 novel of the same name, the film tells the story of a couple’s bitter divorce from the viewpoint of their six-year-old daughter Maisie. In the film’s opening scene, Susanna (Julianne Moore) takes part in bedtime ritual with her daughter. It’s clear right away that Maisie is not your average little girl.
Precocious and kind, Maisie carefully weighs every situation in which she finds herself. Aprile uses subtle facial expressions and small gestures to bring the girl’s inner journey to understand her parents’ separation to the surface so that the viewer can see what she sees. When we first meet Maisie’s father Beale (Steve Coogan), we can tell from the girl’s behavior that he isn’t at all like her mother. What’s beautiful in Maisie’s first interactions with adult characters is that the viewer is allowed to perceive her limited knowledge of these adults.
Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel construct the introduction of new characters in the film in such a way that the viewer has the same limited knowledge of these adults as does Maisie. When we first meet Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), Susanna’s sort-of boyfriend, we don’t know what to make of him at all. He remains a mystery to us even as he encounters Maisie at her school and during a session in the recording studio with Susanna. We come to know Lincoln slowly, just as Maisie does.
The same is true for Margo (Joanna Vanderham), who we meet first as Maisie’s nanny and later come to know as her father’s girlfriend. There’s an uncertainty when we meet these characters that must be not unlike the uncertainty young children naturally feel when they meet a strange adult for the first time. While the film never seems slow, it takes a long time for the real personalities of each character to emerge.
Of all the rich personalities in the film, it is always Maisie who shines the most. Working with James’ original material, writers Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright crafted a script that continually redirects the focus to Maisie while slowly unveiling hidden relationship dynamics to the viewer. Indeed, the film’s little twists and turns come as a surprise if you’re not already familiar with the story. We watch as Maisie processes small kernels of meaning and fits them into the larger picture of what’s going on around her. The film’s success hinges on her wit and intelligence, which is never demeaned or undermined.
Despite the fact that the subject matter is heavy and that Maisie is subjected to far too much adult catastrophe, What Maisie Knew is able to retain just a little chunk of joy that makes it pleasurable to watch. Every small delight the film’s young heroine feels ripples through the audience. Skarsgard and Vanderham in particular do an excellent job of creating quirks for their characters that become deeply endearing by the end of the movie. There’s nothing false about the characters in What Maisie Knew, and that’s a very good thing.
The combo Blu-ray and DVD release of What Maisie Knew offers three special features: director’s commentary, the original theatrical trailer and deleted scenes. The best of these features by far is the commentary, which has been thoughtfully done and doesn’t suffer from any long, rough patches that are painful for the listener. The commentary also gives viewers a window into Maisie’s thought process and how Aprile and the creative team were able to tease that out for the audience. While the deleted scenes are fun to watch, it’s clear why they didn’t make the final cut. Diehard Julianne Moore fans may enjoy watching her in a music video for one of Susann’s songs, but otherwise that particular extra doesn’t add much to the story. Opt for the audio commentary if you want to shed more light on What Maisie Knew.