Updating What Maisie Knew involves more than simply swapping black London cabs with yellow New York ones

Henry James and the myth of freedom.

For the new film What Maisie Knew, the directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel have made the smart decision to update the setting of Henry James’s 1897 novel about divorced Londoners squabbling over custody of their young daughter to contemporary New York. The film is thus free to focus on character and motivation rather than hoop skirts and period furniture, freeing James in turn from his gilded Merchant Ivory prison.
 
Not one line from the novel makes it into the screenplay – at least, none I recognised. Despite this, the film succeeds in bringing to the screen James’s complex psychological study of an intelligent young girl who is abused and abandoned by her parents. This is thanks in part to the superb performances – notably by the seven-year-old actress Onata Aprile – and in part to a refreshing lack of mawkishness. It’s also the result of the filmmakers’ commendable decision to follow the novel and depict everything from Maisie’s perspective. Ironically, this results in the film presenting her freedom in terms contrary to the spirit of James’s novel but depressingly familiar to our social and political moment.
 
Updating What Maisie Knew involves more than simply swapping black London cabs with yellow New York ones. An important question in the novel is whether Maisie possesses a “moral sense”, a term used by her governess to mean little more than condemning sex outside of marriage. Since hardly anyone in today’s New York thinks this way, the question is excised from the film – as is her governess. The moral sense James’s Maisie does possess is a matter not of judgement but perspective: her extraordinary ability to identify with others. This is never more evident – and never more needed – than in the harrowing scene in which her father tells her he is leaving for America: “[It] rolled over her that this was their parting, their parting for ever, and that he had brought her there for so many caresses only because it was important such an occasion should look better for him than any other.” Maisie realises not only that her father doesn’t want to tell her that he will never see her again but that he wants her to reject him – to save his idea of himself as decent.
 
The scene reappears in the film but here her father (played by Steve Coogan) is leaving America for England. There is another crucial difference: in the film, his offer to take Maisie with him appears to be real, at least until she asks him whether she will be able to spend every other week at her mother’s house, forgetting there is an ocean in between. What the scene makes clear is that the immorality of the father asking his daughter to decide lies not in whether he is being sincere but in the act of giving Maisie a choice at all. She should not be allowed to choose because she doesn’t know what is involved in choosing, as her naive comment about visiting her mother makes clear, and hence she should not be made to bear the responsibility for the choice. Yet the film-makers – unlike James’s Maisie – seem not to know this.
 
The film ends with Maisie faced with another choice, only this time it is her mother (the extraordinary Julianne Moore) doing the asking. The upbeat ending assures the viewer that she has made the right choice, the choice we hoped she’d make all along. However, to approve of her choice is to condone the idea that she should be making such choices in the first place: a very modern, very American but not very defensible notion.
 
It’s instructive to compare the film with the work of the Belgian directing team the Dardenne brothers, whose films continually depict people making difficult or appalling choices. (In the 2005 film L’Enfant, a young father sells his newborn child.) Their films introduce choice into places where it doesn’t belong, places where behaviour should be determined by duty and by love. The sign of how far it is from working-class Belgium to upper-class New York is that, despite all the terrible choices made by the parents in What Maisie Knew, the film retains a belief in the importance of the freedom to choose, even when that choice concerns something as seemingly ineluctable as who your parents are.
 
James had no such belief in freedom of choice. The world depicted in his fiction is relentlessly social and densely psychological, a world in which no choice is truly free: every act is in part prompted by forces outside of the subject’s control; every act constrains someone else’s freedom.
 
Despite the interconnectedness of our world, we seem to have forgotten this lesson. The market’s relentless trumpeting of the importance of freedom of choice in every arena, no matter how trivial – from schools to doctors to light bulbs – obscures the increasing erosion of economic and social mobility. No exclamation recurs more frequently in James’s novels than: “I’m free, I’m free!” But nothing is less true. And in an era subject to any number of fatuous warnings about the threats to “our freedoms” from both home and abroad, James’s scepticism – what we might call his moral sense – is far from anachronistic.
 
Stuart Burrows is an associate professor of English at Brown University in Rhode Island 
Julianne Moore and Onata Aprile in What Maisie Knew. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle