James is without question my favourite classic author. A number of his stories have been made into films over the last forty years, notably The Portrait of a Lady starring Nicole Kidman and The Golden Bowl starring Uma Thurman (I didn’t care for the movie version of Washington Square starring Jennifer Jason Leigh at all, nor The Wings of a Dove starring Helena Bonham Carter).
Film directors generally stick to the period piece when bringing James’s stories to the screen although all that changes with What Maisie Knew directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel.
It’s the story of a thoroughly modern, mean divorce set against a rock’n’roll New York backdrop. Constantly clutching their mobile phones and taking both sly and overt verbal digs at each other are Maisie’s parents, played brilliantly by Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan. Staying true to James’s story, Maisie becomes the pawn in a bitter, nasty battle .
“Crudely as they had calculated they were at first justified by the event: she was the little feathered shuttlecock they could fiercely keep flying between them.”
There are lots of reoccurring symbols woven into the film – the parents constantly distracted by their phones while Maisie waits patiently by their side; the number of scenes that include Maisie going to sleep and waking up (where? And to what?) are clever – Moore singing Maisie to sleep in the opening scene with a lullaby immediately sets the viewer on edge – it’s saccharine, it’s insincere and Maisie is wise to it.
What’s brought to life so perfectly on the screen is the heartbreaking neglect of a sweet little kid – surrounded by adults, Maisie quickly learns that the ones who truly care for her are not her biological family at all. The scene in which Maisie first meets Lincoln (in the book the character is Sir Claude) was shattering. Which brings me to Onata Aprile, the young actress playing Maisie – could she be one of the youngest ever Oscar winners (she’s seven years old)? Astounding. See it.