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With all due respect to Henry James, I’d rather be watching this contemporary adaptation of his work than slashing through the thickets of his novel. A thicket of a book, the last time I used this description was with Proust. And, if I’m to decipher long and incomprehensible sentences I’d rather be reading Proust than James. Nevertheless, James’s novel is a dense and deep psychological analysis of a dysfunctional marriage and its fallout on the child, a relevant issue today. Nobody wins in cases like that.

When published in 1897, it was probably one of the earliest fictional depictions of divorce and child-custody. Precocious Maisie knows much more than her parents could ever imagine. Like a volleyball, she is being tossed back and forth between her Mama and Papa, whichever side she lands on loses, for they both want their life to be free from child-rearing, free from ties and obligations. The notion of being ‘free’ recurs in the last chapters of the book, a key to how Maisie ends up choosing who to follow — her governess Mrs. Wix, someone who is not obsessed with being ‘free’, but who is committed to Maisie’s welfare.

What Maisie Knew

 

Again, may I reiterate here as in previous posts about books to movies, the two are totally different art forms. Here, one is a 300 page literary work, internal, dense and deep. The other is a 93-minute production of visual storytelling, enhanced by dialogues and musical score. To achieve this end, screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright have to pick and choose the most relevant storyline and characters, and opt out of lengthy, internal exploration of psychological entanglements, something the literary form can describe readily. The screenwriters have done a good job in their choices, keeping the story simple and relevant for viewers a hundred years after the book was published. Despite the subject matter, the movie is enjoyable and highly watchable.

Set in modern day NYC, it smoothly tells a poignant story from the child’s point of view. Six-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) is eyewitness and victim of her parents’ constant quarrels and later divorce, a young child caught in the thorns and thistles of adult relationships. It is unfortunate that the most sensitive and observant child is often the most vulnerable. The naturalistic capture by the camera of Maisie’s quiet observations is most heart-wrenching. Maisie learns that the adult world is a busy place, her presence, an inconvenience. Thanks to the screenwriters’ gentler treatment, the movie spares us from some cruel, hateful fights in the book. We see Maisie ultimately get a taste of what it’s like to be cared for and to have some simple, childhood joy. The ending shot is beautiful.

Unlike Maisie in the novel, there is no moral dilemma for her in the movie. No doubt, the moral element is crucial in James’s novel. Divorce and adultery must have poked deep into the heart of James’s readers in his days. But our contemporary society has, alas, evolved into a ‘morally neutral’ state of numb resistance. The screenwriters may well know too that entertainment value comes before the didactic. We see no moral choices here with Maisie in the movie. After all, a young child will readily cling to whoever that loves her in deeds rather than mere words. Kudos to the filmmakers, they know the heart of a child.

Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel capture the story from Maisie’s viewpoint, natural and realistic, camera lens often at a lower angle. Certain shots are particularly affective, from inside a taxi, the transport of choice in Manhattan, at different times the vehicle that takes away Mama, Papa, and caring Margo. We would see from inside the taxi out to Maisie standing on the roadside, abandoned and distraught.

The wonderful cast is what makes the movie so absorbing, and at times, even heartwarming, despite its subject matter. The then seven year-old Onata Aprile is a natural. Julian Moore’s solid performance as her mother Susanna is convincing. She is a touring rock-and-roll singer who has passed her prime. Jealous and temperamental, Susanna’s love for Maisie is possessive, and often displayed in empty words. British actor Steve Coogan, known to North American viewers by his recent starring role in Philomena, plays the career-minded art dealer father Beale. Like his ex-wife, he is too busy with his own life to care for a child. They both say they love Maisie, showering bursts of affection whenever they see their child.

What saves Maisie is the awkwardly positioned step-parents, her father’s new wife and Maisie’s former babysitter Margo (Joanna Vanderham, the parallel of Ms. Overmore in the book) and her mother’s new love interest, the tall and young bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård, a Sir Claude parallel). As predicted, they soon are abandoned themselves and the two quickly form a tie that includes Maisie in their life. Diverging from James’s story, the two are genuinely loving and caring, a soothing balm to Maisie and the viewers.

Overall, a fine, contemporary adaptation of the novel. To James purists, a loose reinvention; for viewers seeking meaningful entertainment, this should be on the list of films to watch.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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