WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Hollywood Puts Old Wine In New Bottles…And Thereby Slightly Spoils It)

What Maisie Knew (2012)

This version of Henry James’ short novel (1897) has been lauded to the skies and, based only on the skill and fluidity with which it was made, that’s easily understandable.

But where the novel was haunting (James’ usual effect when he kept it brief), the movie is disturbing–and for all the wrong reasons.

Bad enough that Indy Hollywood can transform this story, in particular, into a happy ending and actually make it feel sort of earned. Evidently we’ve come to the place where even the cutting edge–and, yes, Henry James’ edges still cut–must come with the soothing balm wrapped right up next to the serrated knife. When Maisie is effectively claimed by her adoptive parents as her preferred substitutes for her biological ones at the end, it doesn’t so much feel liberating as chilling. What the six-year old wants, the six-year old gets because, well, she’s the one we’re rooting for…and this is still the movies.

Of course, it’s natural to root for her in the novel as well, but it’s also plainly evident we will have to risk going down with her when all is said and done. And if you’ve ever made it to the end of a Henry James novel, then you know going in just how great the risk of going down with her is–not just that the worst is coming but that he’ll make it hurt no matter how much your past experience with him has braced you for the fall.

This movie? Not so much.

The sense of risk that’s inherent in the setup is still there. I felt it throughout the movie. But the film makers pulled the punch at the end. Maisie’s not doomed to unhappiness here. And it turns out that a version of What Maisie Knew where the child isn’t doomed is basically a fairy tale.

And because the film makers made this very strange decision, it casts the brilliant performance by six-year old Onata Aprile into a different and highly unsettling light. The fact that she has more stylized close-ups than Garbo in Camille was merely cloying as I watched the film.

She’s gorgeous. I get it

She’s also six. Enough already with the “old soul” heartstrings.

Those lingering close-ups became more disturbing in retrospect, though.

When the end I was expecting didn’t quite come about–when the possibility of going down with her evaporated because, well, she seems to have put herself in a pretty good place–it made the whole thing seem as if the child gets her wish precisely because she’s gorgeous. As if no child who failed to inspire good old-fashioned Golden Age Hollywood camera lust could possibly expect the same.

The rules are different, it seems, if Maisie happens to look like Onata Aprile.

It’s probably not fair to allow this to undercut Aprile’s naturalistic performance, which, when the camera isn’t completely invested in making us fall in love with her–when she’s allowed to be six, in other words–is truly wondrous and makes every one of the highly skilled adults she’s working with seem forced and self-conscious by comparison.

On that level alone, it’s up there with Roddy McDowall in How Green Was My Valley or Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon or Hayley Mills in Tiger Bay or Jackie Cooper in The Champ or whoever you think the benchmark for child performance in a movie should be.

And, yes, all the more amazing because she’s only six.

I only wish Indy Hollywood had found the nerve to do as much justice by her as Henry James did when he dreamed her up a century and more ago.