“The Sheep from the Goats”: I review “What Maisie Knew”

at AmCon. Spoilers.

There may not be many movies with happy endings more heartless than the one in What Maisie Knew.

The new adaptation of Henry James’s novel about divorce as seen through the eyes of a small child does some things really well. All of the acting is great, especially Onata Aprile as six-year-old Maisie and Steve Coogan as her art-dealer father. Cell phones are used terrifically to create a sense of parental distraction, chaos, and irreconcilable conflicting demands.

We sense that Maisie’s understanding of her situation is fragmentary and almost fantastical. She is compliant, and protective of the adults in her life, but repeated disappointments also make her scared and hesitant. She’s mercurial in a very real little-kid way; at times nothing seems to stick to her, but sometimes she’s clearly overhearing and remembering things her parents don’t expect her to catch. By forgetting some things (“Don’t you remember when Daddy threw you across the room?”) and holding on to others, she creates a narrative of her parents’ marriage and its breakup which is strikingly different from the one the parents themselves have, the ones they retail in the offices of schoolteachers and lawyers, and the one the audience itself creates. Maisie wears a big owl backpack with giant eyes, and later she’s dressed in a pink shirt with a glasses-wearing, also giant-eyed bunny rabbit, so it seems like the movie wants to tell a story about conflicting perceptions and hidden, obscure and partial truths.

So why is it so simplistic?

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About Eve Tushnet

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