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

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
Show Hide image

The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.