The movie adaptation of What Maisie Knew, directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel is an updated rendering of Kramer v. Kramer, directed by Robert Benton. The topic is the same, divorcing parents who despise each other and how their children are the victims of their mutual hatred.
While Kramer v. Kramer puts a gloss or a veneer on the subject, to appeal to more conservative times in the 1980s and the story is told from the perspective of the parents; What Maisie Knew does away with that gloss and gives us the unvarnished version of how it looks from a child’s point of view when her parents’ are at war with each other. The camera angles in What Maisie Knew is always at the level of the child, the audience gets to see the events and the people in her life from her vantage point, a small person, looking up at the scary adult world, which can be overwhelming for a child.
What Maisie Knew was originally a Henry James novel published in 1897. It’s a novel about upper middle class parents who divorce and each parent use their child Maisie to manifest their hatred and disdain for each other. In the novel, the custody arrangement is that Maisie lives with each parent six months at a time, but her parents are narcissistic and selfish people and Maisie is often left in the care of her caretakers, who do a better job looking after her than her parents.
The movie version essentially kept the same plot but updated the events to take place in modern day New York City. Maisie’s mother Susanna is a rock musician who tours with her band. She has moderate success as a rock musician and has a small fan base and they often party at her house while Maisie is there. Maisie’s father Beale is no better either. He’s a successful art dealer who is often away on business. On the outside, Beale looks like the more stable parent because he knows how to keep his temper in check, whereas Susanna has a bad temper who is prone to losing her cool and Beale knows exactly which buttons to push to make her lose her temper, and she falls for it every time. The care of Maisie is left in the care of Margo, her Scottish nanny, who is loving and kind. Margo tries to shield Maisie from the ugly fighting of her parents and tries to make life ‘normal’ for her.
Susanna and Beale finally divorce, the custody of Maisie becomes a battleground. Each parent tries to undermine the other as they each petition for sole custody, even though they both have no intention of parenting Maisie themselves. Beale seduced and married Margot to install her as Maisie’s caretaker and as his wife, then he won’t need to pay her. Susanna married Lincoln, a younger bartender so he can babysit Maisie (also for free) when she’s working. Susanna and Beale just about violate every cardinal rule about divorce where there is children involved. They say terrible things about the other parent to Maisie. Susanna calls Beale an “asshole” in front of Maisie. She locks Beale out and have a nasty fight through the locked front door while Maisie is standing right there, she makes no attempt to moderate herself and her temper in the presence of her young daughter. While Beale is less vitriolic, he undermines Susanna’s authority at every turn, he tells Maisie that her mother is mentally unstable and makes fun of Susanna temper tantrums, he also makes condescending remarks about Susanna’s waning singing career. One of the worst things they do is sending Maisie off to court appointed child psychiatrists to get her to say something bad about the other parent in an effort to gain sole custody.
Maisie takes all of this in stride, for a six year old, she’s very astute on what she should and shouldn’t say, as if she knew if she said the wrong thing to the wrong person, she’ll be ripped away from one of her parents forever. She also became adept at navigating the murky waters of her parents’ narcissism and selfishness. In front of her parents, she tries to be the perfect little girl so that they won’t be mad at each other or mad at her. Like many children of divorce, she probably thinks it’s her fault that her parents are divorcing. Susanna and Beale never even took the time to tell their daughter that their divorce and mutual hatred for each other and all this shouting, insults and ugliness is not her fault and that they love her no matter what. Margo did that bit for them.
While Joanna and Ted of Kramer v. Kramer seek to mitigate the effects of their divorce on their child, Susanna and Beale make no such effort. Joanna and Ted Kramer each want sole custody because they want to parent little Billy; Susanna and Beale want sole custody of Maisie to spite each other. Susanna nor Beale have any interest in being Maisie’s main caregiver, they will farm out the tedious bits of parenting and when time permits and when it suits their mood that day, they’ll swoop in the front door and be the ‘Disneyland parent’. This is their idea of good parenting. Perhaps the greatest tragedy (or not) of this toxic situation is Maisie’s unwavering unconditional love for each of her parents, no matter how appalling they’ve been. Each time she sees them, the excitement overtakes her, she runs straight into their arms – and it’s worthy to note, Maisie isn’t a particularly expressive child. Yet her parents can’t see that and endeavor to behave better towards Maisie and each other.
The custody arrangement is a disaster, they are to hand Maisie over t0 each other every 10 days except both Susanna and Beale either ‘forget’ to drop Maisie off or they drop her off a few days early or a few days later. This drives both Margo and Lincoln insane as they become the de facto parents of Maisie. Pretty soon both parents disappear altogether. Susanna disappears for days at a time to go ‘on tour’, Beale disappears for weeks at a time because he’s in London making deals. When both Margo and Lincoln realized they’ve been used to help their respective spouses gain custody and be free child care to Maisie they become angry and disillusioned and turn to each other for friendship. They remain in Maisie’s life to look after her because no one else will and they bonded with Maisie on an emotional level. While Beale doesn’t much care if Maisie prefers Margo over him – Maisie is just a trophy to him; Susanna, on top of unwilling to be a parent, resents the fact that Maisie warms to Lincoln and prefers Lincoln’s company over her own sometimes. She lashes out at both Lincoln and Maisie. Susanna and Beale are thoroughly unlikeable characters without any trace of character traits which might make them sympathetic. They are selfish, narcissistic and horrible people, not just towards Maisie but to everyone else too.
Perhaps when Henry James wrote this novel in the late 1800s, he wrote this as a warning of what might happen if ancient institutions such as marriage and family are not honored, there will be children split into two homes shuttling back and forth, not knowing that it’s become a reality less than 100 years later. With divorce rate hovering at 50%, many children are being shuttled between two homes on a weekly basis.
Of all the horrible things that happened to Maisie, she took it on the chin. She doesn’t cry when her mom or dad doesn’t come pick her up from school, or when she realizes she’s been made into a pawn between her hateful parents. She has Margo and Lincoln to fall back on for love and support. Children being the intuitive beings they are know immediately the people who truly care for them and will naturally navigate towards them. The nadir of the movie is when Susanna had a day off during her tour, she made an unannounced visit back to New York City, gets into a fight with Lincoln which ends their marriage (child care arrangement), with Lincoln spitting the words “You don’t deserve her (Maisie)” to her and walks away. Susanna intended to postpone her tour and stay in New York City with Maisie for awhile, but she gets a call from her manager telling her that she must return to tour or else she’ll be sued. She has no choice but to return. Beale by this time has moved back to England permanently, divorced Margo the nanny, Susanna just ended her marriage to Lincoln, instead of calling Lincoln to see if he can come pick her up at her apartment, she drops Maisie off at the restaurant where Lincoln works, and waves goodbye to her daughter, doesn’t even give her daughter a cell phone with emergency numbers on it, no backpack of her belongings, not even any form of identification. Except that night was Lincoln’s night off and no one could reach him on his phone. Maisie falls asleep at the restaurant and is brought to the home of another waitress to spend the night. Maisie wakes up in the middle of the night in a stranger’s home with a large and imposing man there and they appear to be smoking pot, she finally breaks down and sheds a tear. It’s the first time she cried in the whole movie. Thankfully, Margo was there by morning to collect Maisie.
Because Susanna and Beale are wealthy residents of New York City, and as a result of their wealth and status – the people around them protected them from authorities. If a poor Latino or black mother dropped of her child at her ex-husband’s work while he wasn’t there and left them there, you can be positive that she will be arrested and charged with child neglect or child abandonments (as she should). Her child will enter the foster care system and it would be a very long time before they can be reunited. Susanna and Beale and by extension Margo and Lincoln are protected from criminal prosecution because of their race, wealth and status. While Kramer v. Kramer provided a sympathetic bent to Ted and Joanna and made these two flawed humans and ultimately desiring to be a loving parent to little Billy. What Maisie Knew doesn’t even bother with what kind of parents Susanna and Beale could have been if circumstances were different, they are just shitty people and even shittier parents. If it weren’t for their wealth and social status (musician and art dealer), they’d be exposed as the nasty people they are.
This is not a case where Susanna feels trapped by motherhood, she isn’t. Before her divorce, Margo was hired as a full time nanny to Maisie. She was able to work, tour and throw loud and inappropriate parties in her home after her child goes to bed. Her husband Beale didn’t really care what she did. It’s unclear what their arguments are about. They usually take place off camera where Susanna shouts in background “asshole”, “loser”, “there you go walking away again”, “coward”. There are no indications of infidelity or anything else. Whereas Joanna Kramer used her time away to improve herself and become a better person and mother, Susanna has no such concerns. She doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with her temper or how her behavior affects her child. The same goes for her husband Beale. He provides for Maisie financially, does the superficial ‘good dad’ act and to him, that’s good enough. Susanna wants to be seen as a good and caring mother, but doesn’t want to put in the effort to actually become one. And on top of that, she resents anyone who gets close to her daughter, as it points out her failings as a mother.
In the end, Beale is never heard from again, Susanna goes back on tour, attempts to come back and get her daughter to go on tour with her, but her daughter refuses to go, and is visibly scared of her mother’s bad temper. By this time Margo and Lincoln have gotten together romantically and is staying at a beach house belonging to Margot’s cousin, they have Maisie living with them and Maisie is seen finally having the carefree, stress free childhood she deserves, with her designated caretakers by her waste-of-space parents. But make no mistake this is not a happy ending. Maisie doesn’t need two loving and capable surrogate parents, Maisie needs her own parents to step up to the plate and be there for her. No one can replace her parents, even as narcissistic as they are. Maisie is only six years old in the film, the trauma that she experienced with her parents divorce will manifest itself in many ways in the years to come.
Whereas Kramer v. Kramer gave a biased view of Joanna Kramer as the ‘villain’ of the film, What Maisie Knew gave a pretty even handed dealing of Susanna and Beale. They were both awful in their own ways. On the face of it, Susanna seems worse than Beale because of her foul temper and dirty mouth, but upon closer examination, Beale is no better himself. He is the sneering contemptible Englishman personified. His ‘good manners’ covers up a person who is rotten to the core, he only thinks of himself, Maisie and her needs are an after thought.