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 intransigence.
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 Beale 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 awakens in a strange bed and doesn’t even know the person she’s 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 happens, 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.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.