What Maisie Knew” is based on the 1897 novel by Henry James. Then and now, “What Maisie Knew” deals with child-neglect, abandonment and just general, sharper-than-a-serpent’s-tooth bad behavior on the part of the parents. You want to think that such parents will look back in their old age and writhe in shame and regret. You want to think they’ll sob and beg to be forgiven. The underlying message in “What Masie Knew” (both the book and movie) is: Nah, not gonna happen. The other message is that luckily for everyone, children are remarkably resilient and vastly resourceful.
If the parents of 6-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) were brutal or cruel instead of infinitely self-absorbed, Maisie could have slapped them with an abuse charge. As it is, however, they claim to love her to bits. So Maisie must play along, hug them back and tell them that yes, she loves them too. Problem is, Mom (Julianne Moore) and Dad (Steve Coogan) hate each other like poison and whenever they’re in the same room (which is not often) it’s a verbal bloodbath, the likes of which keep Maisie up at night, while her mother’s pathetic pursuit of youthful excess causes a school friend who’s round for a sleepover to dissolve into frightened tears.
For the parents’ part, they have their excuses and justifications. Mom is an aging rock chick, clinging to unfulfilled dreams of fame and glory. Dad is a Manhattan art dealer, addicted to his phone and forever going off to Europe. They’re both too intent on proving themselves — to each other and to the world — that they can’t be bothered to remember their daughter’s basic needs. Early on, they get a divorce, which makes sense, but then Dad marries Maisie’s young nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) and, in retaliation, Mom hastily slips a ring on young and studly bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard) without a word to her daughter beforehand. “I got married because I love you,” she coos to Maisie, but you can see Maisie has big question marks hovering all around her head.
After that, Maisie is shuttled back and forth, from school to her mom’s gorgeous loft or her dad’s gorgeous condo, by her parents’ respective spouses. Clearly, the young pair have got a raw deal here — especially Margo, because as Dad’s new wife she’s also expected to be an unpaid nanny and housekeeper.
When James’ novel was published, some critics pointed out that since Maisie wasn’t destitute or in the workhouse (as many children were in late 19th-century England), her predicament wasn’t deserving of sympathy. The same logic would apply to Maisie in the movie: New York now has more homeless children than at any time since the Great Depression, while little Maisie sleeps in a bedroom the size of a one-bedroom apartment, filled with tasteful, fancy toys.
But to indict her in any way for the behavior of the 1 percent would be a mistake. As the movie shows with simple candor, a child doesn’t need the things that money can buy, but someone to smile and make her pancakes in the morning. That shouldn’t be too hard to give any child, but it’s astonishing how often adults fail at the task. At least as far as Maisie’s mom and dad are concerned, being a rock star or selling a painting is so much easier.