“What Maisie Knew”
This one will break your heart about ten different ways. “What
Maisie Knew” is based on the novel by Henry James, written in 1897.
Yes, you read that right. We’ve been treating our children badly in
our divorcing for that long.
Of course, it’s way too easy to moralize about the evils of divorce,
but that does no good. The fact is, it’s going to happen, despite the
fact that nobody gets married intending to split up later. Theologically
speaking, if there’s a cultural testament to our sinful natures, this is it:
we sacrifice our children’s well-being on the altars of our own
Maisie is played by the amazing 7-year-old, Onata Aprile, and this story
is told from her innocent point of view. We see her in her room, playing
with her toys, while her parents are arguing so loudly in the next room that
we hear them clearly. Her mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), is an aging
rock star who angrily accuses her husband, Beale (Steve Coogan), of being too
distracted with his work (he’s an international art dealer), but it’s the
pot calling the kettle black. He, in turn, accuses her of being a
washed-up has-been, and proceeds to stalk off on a business trip.
Susanna has her friends in the band over, and they’re listening to loud
music, and smoking something or other, having a party, and little Maisie
wanders in the room because she’s having trouble sleeping, and her mother
just tells her to go back to bed. Susanna’s not mean, she’s just
self-absorbed. And it only gets worse.
Now they’re fighting over custody. They both try to paint each
other as unfit parents, and the court winds up, apparently, granting joint
custody, with alternating periods of three weeks or six weeks. We catch
some of this obliquely, as Maisie can’t help but overhear, or peeks around a
corner during a heated conversation on a cell phone.
Maisie is quite comfortable with her young nanny, Margo (Joanna
Vanderham), and they, predictably, begin to bond during all the turmoil in the
house. But, alas, it turns out that Beale is interested in Margo, as
well, which infuriates Susanna, but of course, there’s nothing she can do
about it, which infuriates her even more. The easygoing Maisie seems to
re-adjust easily to her Dad and her Nanny being together. Their breathtakingly
quick marriage also gives Dad the illusion of a stable household for the
court’s benefit. Susanna, not to be outdone, runs off and marries some
young friend of the band who’s actually a bartender. Lincoln
(Alexander Skarsgard) acts like he has no idea how to be with Maisie, but she
happily connects with him, anyway, which, instead of making Susanna happy,
actually makes her angry, because she feels further disenfranchised.
This is not a sympathetic character.
Things continue to spiral down, as Susanna’s band goes on tour, and
Lincoln winds up having to take Maisie with him to work (yes, at the bar).
Beale leaves on an extended business trip, and Margo winds up feeling used and
neglected; now everyone’s arguing with each other. And little Maisie,
sweet as she is, just tries to adjust to whatever situation she finds herself
in, only getting upset once---when she awakened in a strange bed and didn’t
even know the person she’d been deposited with (someone who worked in the
bar with Lincoln). Maisie’s little tears just run softly down her
cheek, as she quietly longs to be with someone she knows.
Yes, as viewers, we’re just appalled, but somehow not surprised.
It all seems to be so logical, the way it happened, step by poignant step.
We wish we could just shake somebody and say “Wake up! Look what
you’re doing to your child!” And then we realize that Maisie’s
story is not at all unusual, and we, too, silently weep for all the children
out there, whose adults in their lives can’t figure out their own lives.
This one will break your heart about ten different ways.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving,