Saturday, August 3, 2013

McGehee and Siegel

What Maisie Knew

The response – quite reasonable, I thought – from a friend who hadn’t read Henry James’s What Maisie Knew to the recent movie version was “Shouldn’t those parents have been thrown in jail for child abuse?” Apart from the usual difficulty in adapting James to the screen (or the stage) – that almost none of his novels is inherently dramatic – this particular one, which he wrote in 1897, poses special problems because of the way our culture now perceives the role of parents in the lives of their children. The novel’s narrative trick is that it’s entirely in the point of view of the little girl, Maisie (she’s ten when the book begins, about thirteen when it ends), whose parents, who are splitting up, use her as a pawn to wound and manipulate each other. But the novel is a high comedy, and its central joke (if you want to call it a joke) is that precocious Maisie knows a great deal more than one might imagine – and, of course, acquires more knowledge as the story goes on. She’s the protagonist, and her qualities of character – as well as insight and an astonishing gift for assimilating information in a game in which the rules seem constantly to be shifting, these include boundless optimism, patience, elegance of expression and a deep capacity for love – make her a true heroine. James is less concerned with what is done to her than with how she handles her situation.

The directing team that has brought What Maisie Knew to the screen, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, is an odd case. Their movies are intelligent, literate, skillful, confident and sophisticated, yet not one of them – the others are Suture, The Deep End, Bee Season and Uncertainty – works. Of all of their preceding collaborations, What Maisie Knew is closest to The Deep End in the way in which it fails. Both place their plots in modern settings. The Deep End, which came out in 2001, is an adaptation (also written by McGehee and Siegel) of a terrific 1947 novel by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding called The Blank Wall, set in a coastal resort town during the Second World War. In the book, which Holding originally published as a story in Ladies Home Journal, Lucia, a housewife whose husband is off (and unreachable) on a ship, has to deal with the ramifications of her teenage daughter’s romance with a seedy older man. When she tries to persuade him to stop seeing the girl, he offers to let her buy him off; she refuses and tells the daughter, who (of course) doesn’t believe her. When the man comes to the house, Lucia’s father-in-law, who lives with the family, knocks him into the water, where he hits his head and drowns. The father-in-law has no idea what’s happened; it’s Lucia who finds the body and disposes of it on a nearby island. But then a pair of business partners to whom the dead man owed money present Lucia with a sheaf of love letters signed by the daughter and demand blackmail money. The story becomes stranger when one of the blackmailers grows enamored of Lucia – she represents the decent world that his life experiences have distanced him from – and tries to help her, alienating his partner in the process. Aside from that development, it’s an archetypal noir narrative in which the main character, through a twist of fate, finds herself pulled away from the sunlit world in which she’s always resided into a dark one with which, in the ordinary course of events, she would never have come face to face. The fact that the protagonist is a woman makes it unusual for stories from this era; her husband’s absence forces her into a position that he would otherwise have taken. (He’s the breadwinner and the financial arbiter of the family; she has little money of her own and only the vaguest notion how to go about getting some.)

The first movie version, The Reckless Moment (1949), directed by Max Ophüls, makes the daughter (Geraldine Brooks) the unwitting killer and shifts the focus to the relationship between Lucia (Joan Bennett) and the reluctant blackmailer (James Mason). It’s a compelling movie, and the two leading actors are excellent, but it doesn’t work. I never completely understood why until I read the long-forgotten book (newly available in a beautiful reprint by Persephone Books) and realized that the screenwriters – there were four of them – had subtly altered the meaning of the material by moving around the narrative elements. The Deep End changes the meaning more radically by updating it. The main character is now Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton), whose teenage son Beau (Jonathan Tucker) is sleeping with a creepy club owner (Josh Lucas) whose body she discovers after Beau has accidentally caused his death; the item that Alek (Goran Visjnic) tries to peddle to her is a sex tape of the two lovers. The gender substitution certainly makes the story feel more contemporary, and though the father’s non-presence (he, too, is off on a ship somewhere) is less convincing in the shrunken world of the twenty-first century, the suggestion that this straight-arrow navy man wouldn’t know how to handle his son’s homosexuality provides an additional reason for Margaret to take his protection squarely on her own shoulders. And Swinton and Visjnic are even better than Bennett and Mason. Visjnic has a bruised heroism in the role; he made me think of Bosola, the great anti-hero in Webster’s tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, whose growing reverence for the woman he’s been hired to destroy makes him revolt against his very nature. And to the tensions of a woman struggling with ugly forces she doesn’t comprehend Swinton adds the perplexity and mixed emotions of a mother who suddenly sees, in graphic terms, a side to her son she has only suspected. (She doesn’t deplore his sexuality, though she fears for the ways in which it makes him vulnerable, but what mother wants to see a tape of her teenage son in the throes of sexual passion?) The problem is that if Holding didn’t write a story about weirdly star-crossed not-exactly-lovers (The Reckless Moment), she emphatically didn’t write one about sexuality.

And Henry James didn’t write a story about the victimization of a little girl, though that’s what McGehee and Siegel’s version of What Maisie Knew ends up being. In the novel Maisie is tossed back and forth between her quarreling parents, who have much less interest in her than the nannies they hire to deal with her – and than the people they marry on the rebound, each of whom forms a close relationship with the child. Eventually the second unions dissolve as well, Maisie’s parents moving on to new liaisons, by which time the discarded partners have begun to drift toward each other. In the end Maisie has to choose between a spinsterish nanny (who has herself shown an unrequited romantic interest in Maisie’s stepfather) and the lovers, whose unmarried state makes them, in James’s era, unsuitable as parents; she chooses – with some difficulty – the nanny. (Her real parents have long since bowed out of her life, and out of the novel.) Maisie is a vibrant central character; the reader falls in love with her. James doesn’t fall into the trap of making her morally superior to every adult in her life, but what’s most remarkable about her is that she is able to grapple with moral issues you’d expect to be beyond her. It’s also at the heart of the comedy of manners, because it enables James to use her to reflect those issues.

Onata Aprile and Alexander Skarsgård in What Maisie Knew

In the movie, written by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright and directed in a loose, naturalistic style, Maisie’s cosmopolitan father Beale (Steve Coogan) and rock-singer mother Susanna (Julianne Moore) are a dreadful match on the face of it, and they’re both so self-involved that it’s easy for their new mates, Margo (Joanna Vanderham) – as in the book, originally a caregiver Beale hires for Maisie – and Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), to move into much stronger parental roles. Both are considerably younger, and it’s clear that Susanna moved in with Lincoln in order to shore up her custody case, since she’s so often on the road that her ability to provide a stable, consistent environment for her daughter is doubtful. I’m not sure whether James’s intentions would translate to any movie brought out now, but a contemporary setting makes his portrait of Maisie clearly impossible. A vivacious, knowing, upbeat little girl whose parents care less about her than about sticking it to each other could only work in a pre-teen comedy of the Parent Trap variety; the only serious alternative would be to make her their victim. Onata Aprile is very affecting as Maisie, but she’s roughly the opposite of James’s creation. She has a blurred, tentative presence, her feelings so clustered that you often don’t get a clear sense of what she wants at any given moment, though you can usually figure out, as with a much younger child, what she doesn’t want.

When the picture was over the scene that stuck with me was the one where she wakes up, confused and alienated, in the apartment of a young woman she doesn’t know who brought her home from the club where Lincoln works because there was no one else there to take care of her. That would be the scene most likely to enrage a viewer enough to want to see her parents arrested for neglect. We’re not meant to blame Lincoln, who doesn’t happen to be working the night Margo drops her off at the club, or even Margo, who has been locked out of Beale’s new apartment because, though they’re married, he hasn’t thought to give her a key. (True, this scenario strains credulity in a contemporary setting.) Lincoln and Margo, like Sir Claude and the second Mrs. Beale in the novel, are well-meaning, loving, but simply not set up for the task of caring for Maisie that they’ve been saddled with by their distracted partners. Vanderham is very sweet as Margo, and Skarsgård gives a fine performance as Lincoln. Both actors make their characters’ failure to do everything they wish they could do for the child touching, though – again – their inadequacy returns us to the pathos of Maisie’s situation.

Julianne Moore with Onata Aprile
The filmmakers are generous enough to give Beale a scene in which he realizes, too late, how much he cares about his daughter and how badly he’s screwed up, and Coogan handles it sensitively. (He’s decided to move back to England and he offers to take Maisie with him, but it would mean taking her away not only from her mother but from the only world she knows.) But Susanna is utterly unlikable, a narcissist who seems to want Maisie with her only because, whenever she happens to think of it, it pleases her vanity to see herself as a loving mother. I’m not entirely sure that’s how the movie means us to read Susanna; I think that when she shows up at the end of the movie at the beach house Lincoln is sharing with Margo and tries to get Maisie to come out on tour with her, and she realizes that she’s lost her daughter for good, it's meant to be her revelation, corresponding to Beale’s when he makes plans for England. But we can’t believe that her regret will stick with her for very long. The trouble here may be, as it sometimes is in Julianne Moore’s performances, a combination of her personality, which is rather chilly and remote, and her almost reckless commitment to the role. Moore can be a sensational actress but she’s not soft or pliable, and in some roles her purposefulness can be a turn-off, as it sometimes used to be with Glenda Jackson. My favorite Moore performances are the ones in which that distanced quality is poignant (Vanya on 42nd Street and The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio) or mysterious (The End of the Affair) – at any rate, dramatically motivated – or the comic ones, where we don’t look to her for warmth (Cookie’s Fortune and the first two-thirds of The Kids Are All Right, before it becomes sanctimonious and conventional). In What Maisie Knew I found her character so repugnant that she drained any possibility of sympathy out of me long before her final scene.

The movie is a story about a little girl made for grown-ups, and I found much in it to admire, but it baffled me. Can it really be that McGehee and Siegel – and Doyne and Cartwright – read James’s novel as the tragic tale of a mistreated child? Or is it just that, as with The Blank Wall, they’re less interested in the source than in the story they reinvent in their heads?

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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