David Siegel and Scott McGehee's adaptation of the pivotal Henry James novel What Maisie Knew gives the story a modern update fraught with perhaps (emphasis on perhaps) as much drama as the original story. At the time the novel was released in 1897, it was utterly scandalous--outlining both divorce and child neglect. In the current era, a story like this sounds merely like an everyday occurrence. With this in mind, it is difficult to view the film adaptation of What Maisie Knew as anything other than a somewhat ordinary tale. http://youtu.be/JE4Q_7YNlAo
In lieu of British upper class parents getting a divorce, Susanna (Julianne Moore) is a faded rock and roll icon married to Beale (the much underrated Steve Coogan), a constantly traveling art dealer. The combination of their conflicting schedules and general selfishness results in Susanna changing the locks on her apartment and kicking him out. The consequent divorce proves that the only real constant in Maisie's (ingenue Onata Aprile) life is her nanny (or governess in James' terms), Margo (Joanna Vanderham)--though naturally Beale is having an affair with her. Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright's screenplay focuses heavily on the emotional transformation of Maisie as she is used as an overt pawn in a game between Susanna and Beale that has no real rules.
As the inconsistency in Maisie's life escalates after the court grants Susanna and Beale joint custody, Margo is put at the forefront of her care after moving in with Beale. Upon discovering that Margo has taken up residence with him, Susanna essentially marries the first man to take an interest in her, Lincoln (the always aloof Alexander Skarsgard). Maisie is initially averse to him, being that she first encounters him after being picked up late for school by him at her mother's behest. Margo, who shows up after being notified by the school, chooses to leave Maisie in his care so that she can go on her honeymoon with Beale. It is yet another in a series of instances showcasing Maisie's neglect and her ability to display a greater amount of selflessness than the adults around her.
Gradually, Maisie takes a shine to Lincoln, gravitating to him more than anyone else as time goes on. Her attachment to him ends up backfiring, however, when Susanna starts to get disgruntled over her affections for him. Although she's constantly vying to be the most loved by Maisie, Susanna's actions are based on competitive as opposed to genuine reasons. Maisie soon becomes aware of this and ends up seeing that the only people that truly care about her are the people who are not her parents.
While the novel spotlights everyone in Maisie's life as petty and egotistical, save for the older, less attractive governess, Mrs. Wix, that Maisie's mother hires, the movie favors a vaguely more positive outlook on humanity. Ultimately, Susanna can see the damage she has done to her child, allowing her to stay with Lincoln and Margo. In the novel, Maisie's childhood is shown through the larger span of her childhood through her adolescence. It is uncertain whether this framework would have been a detriment or a plot elevator in the case of the film adaptation. The central theme of James' story was also intended to hold a mirror up to the increasingly hedonistic British upper class and their inability to take responsibility for their own children. At this juncture, such a message comes off as a lost cause.