Rocking the Cradle: What Maisie Knew
The opening prologue scene in this visceral, powerful, deeply touching new film starring Julianne Moore eerily (whether via coincidence or purpose) evokes a previous film Moore starred in, one from more than two decades ago, which was one of Moore’s first starring roles: the Rebecca de Mornay vehicle “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle”. And though that film was a psychologically horrific thriller, “What Maisie Knew” is no less disturbing and intense, though in different ways. Both films deal, in one way or another, with failed parenting. And just as Moore gets the titular line in 1992 (“the hand that rocks the cradle is the one that rules the world”), she similarly opens this scene with a salubrious rendition of “Rock-a-bye Baby” as her character’s daughter, Maisie, falls asleep. The hand that rocks the cradle does indeed rule the world, dual directing team Scott McGehee & David Siegel (“Bee Season”, “The Deep End”) seem to be suggesting, especially when it come to the psychological world of a child.
Showing now within Philadelphia’s beautiful, historic Old City district, at Landmark Ritz East theater, “What Maisie Knew” is a minute envisioning of the world from a child’s perspective, crafted with style and substance. As a modern adaptation of Henry James’ 1897 timeless, prescient novel of the same title, this film excels in most areas. Onata Aprile is dumbfounding in her raw talent and instinctual acting ability; at seven, she has the instincts of a seasoned actress. Blink-and-you’ll-miss it subtle reactions to scene partners’ lines rendered from this devastating screenplay are unbelievable to see; I hope Hollywood grants this child a loving, normal upbringing during her time as a child and adolescent before she acts more, as she seems born to do this. If she can survive childhood within Hollywood stardom, I predict the kind of lifetime career of a talent unseen since Jodie Foster.
James, indeed screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright, have written a harrowing evisceration of the all-too-common phenomenon of narcissistic, emotionally infantile couples who enter the world of parenting not so much to bring another life into being through compassionate nurturing, or unconditional love, but as self-absorbed senior babies who seek to use their children- indeed also, as we see throughout the film, everyone else in their lives- for their own egoic stroking. Thus parenting, as James masterfully reveals through his original narrative, is not so much a necessary act to propagate species and culture, but selfish masturbatory pleasuring of one’s personality, status-seeking and need for approval. There are moments in this film that left me nauseous with revulsion, but necessarily so…bad parenting damages not only the children victimized but our civilization as a whole, all parents and all children included. In this sense, “What Maisie Knew” is a cautionary tale, and an effective one.
Julianne Moore is, as usual, extraordinary, portraying her ghoulish monster of a maternal character with non-judgmental passion, understanding the vulnerability at the heart of a woman such as this. Her character doesn’t so much as make a conscious decision to become a parent so much as drunkenly accept whatever society has forced her to believe she must do, as she acts now as if the world owes her something. Pay me, the character seems to desperately say to anyone who will hear. Pay me for my mistakes.
Though some scenes do feel jarring and forced, as if duct-taped to the twenty-first century from James’ late nineteenth century text, by and large this is an important and thought-provoking film. The nature of a divorce and custody battle has rarely been so accurately envisaged. If you are looking for a high-voltage drama, and very moving to boot, look no further.