The parent trap

Rachel Bowlby on a modern retelling of Henry James’ tale of childhood curiosity and parental shortcomings

August 15, 2013

What Maisie Knew
Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Starring Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan
To be released in the UK on 23 August

Not far into Henry James’ novel What Maisie Knew (1897) the small heroine, daughter in an acrimonious divorce, learns that one of her parents has married again. She finds herself “vaguely puzzled to suppose herself now with two fathers at once. Her researches had hitherto indicated that to incur a second parent of the same sex you had usually to lose the first.”

Maisie’s bemusement here fits with James’ brilliant portrayal of the way that a child grapples with and grows into some sort of understanding of the surrounding adult order of things, which has to be fathomed in all the intricacies and contradictions of both domestic particulars and the wider world. The word “researches” wittily qualifies Maisie, like all recent arrivals on the planet, as a sort of private investigator, trying to make sense of all the strange goings-on. Freud had the same thought in essays a few years later about the “sexual researches” of the cynical and curious small child.

In the 1890s, Maisie’s two-father (and, shortly, two-mother) situation really is out of kilter. Additional parents were common enough, but the cause of remarriage was not divorce but death: in Maisie’s almost Wildean phrasing, “you usually had to lose the first”. But ironically, What Maisie Knew, which is all about ignorance, unknowingly anticipates a family set-up that in our own time is anything but unusual. A 21st-century Maisie might be as puzzled or as fascinated as her 19th-century precursor by the prospect of a second father, but nothing in her contemporary researches would have suggested his lack of fit with the norms of parental possibility. Modern Maisies commonly, not exceptionally, acquire supplementary parents.

Given this difference, the decision to set a film version of Maisie in present-day Manhattan seems quite bizarre. What was socially extraordinary in the late 19th century is now an ordinary scenario, and the story might seem to have lost its edge or scandal.

But in fact, apart from the passing puzzlement, James himself never makes a point of the rareness of Maisie’s story. Instead, he is concerned with how she finds a way among the successive situations, and interpretations of them, that are foisted upon her. When her third and fourth parents – her birth parents’ new spouses – themselves get together and form a fourth couple, transgressing the two transgressions of the original marital pair, the social disapproval comes not from a world at large but from yet another surrogate parent, a governess called Mrs Wix. And it’s with her, not with the new step-parental couple, that Maisie, at the end of the novel, makes an agonised choice to live, the birth parents having both long since let her go. Her choice is agonised because her love (and her sense of being loved or not) is torn between all three of the prospective parents.

Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s movie makes one cheeky nod to the momentous changes in family norms. In a sort of impromptu show and tell, Maisie has proudly introduced “my new stepfather” to her school class, and a boy sticks his hand up to outdo that one: “I have two stepfathers, but one is almost dead!” The story unravels and rebinds in many of the same ways as the original novel, as Maisie is shunted (in endless yellow cabs) between the residences of her irreducibly inimical parents, who themselves are less and less seen or heard as their replacements come to the fore. The usually absent Victorian first parents are deftly updated into characters who are always seen attached to their mobiles, their hugs for a returning or departing daughter like afterthoughts to a primary connection which is always somewhere else. Maisie’s blurred awareness of the meanings of everything occurring around and beyond her is brilliantly translated into a cinematic medium of obscure or fragmentary or frightening sounds and sights.

The film’s off-on mother (Julianne Moore), alternately manipulative and neglectful, is matched by a portly English father (Steve Coogan) who is given – when he bothers to formulate a full sentence – to defensive cliché (“Your grandmother isn’t getting any younger”). On one occasion, he rises to a laboured pastiche of Karl Marx for the benefit of his ex-wife’s new husband: “I’d give you a couple of pointers, but I doubt that the Jacobean tragedy that our relationship was would apply to the farce that you two guys are playing out.”

In contrast, the step-parents are unequivocally nice, to Maisie herself, and to one another – apart from a couple of slips whose smoothing simply serves to confirm their devotion and sweetness.

Their relationship develops initially through their shared love and concern for the little girl; but otherwise, and setting aside the fact that they’re married to other people, their story is not unlike that of a regular romcom. The end of the film finds all three – Maisie and those who are now, in effect, her parents – installed in a beachhouse idyll, where they play Monopoly of an evening and go for a long-awaited boat trip. In this situation, Maisie’s refusal to leave when her mother suddenly turns up for her appears obvious and satisfying – both for Maisie herself and for the narrative logic of the film.

Recent movies have begun to explore a modern scenario in which, for various new kinds of reason, having children may come before, not after, the parents’ falling in love: in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (2010), another Julianne Moore character, a lesbian mother, has a passionate fling with her now teenage children’s sperm donor. In this context, what’s radical about the new Maisie is that the parents who finally get together are not the original ones, and the film firmly endorses the rightness of that outcome (and the rejection of the feckless originals). Also, the eventual parents are much less affluent or well-connected than their predecessors, a point rubbed in with post-9/11 consciousness when the bartender stepdad gently suggests to Maisie that some people – such as teachers, nurses and firemen – find it worthwhile to do things for motives other than money.

But by the same token, the film comes over as morally clear and simple in a way that James’ novel is absolutely not. In the first Maisie, Mrs Wix’s sense of propriety is signified by her wearing of a pair of spectacles she calls her “straighteners”. She worries about Maisie being exposed to the inappropriate liaison between the step-parents; she is unconditional in her love for her; she is also herself, like Maisie, in love with Sir Claude, the stepfather. The movie dispenses with old-fashioned Mrs Wix, her distracting affections and her addition of yet one more would-be parent. And unlike the novel’s more complicated figure, whose attention wavers from Maisie to her lover, it presents the stepmother as ultimately committed to Maisie (like Mrs Wix): they go away as a pair, and the stepfather/lover comes later.

In other words, the film – even though it is rooting for the once questionable couple – takes over the place of moral Mrs Wix by presenting an unambiguous view of who is deserving and who is not, and where Maisie should rightly end up. We may have come a long way in the loosening of sexual and marital ties since the first Maisie’s time, but the wish for moral certainty may be as firm as ever.

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