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