Saturday, 28 September 2013

What Maisie Knew

Zero and I went to see this film in London recently. It is a very thought provoking film.

The review of the film at the SIGNIS website gives a very good overview of the film's storyline: What Maisie Knew. To gain a sense of how the film compares - or perhaps does not compare - to Henry James' original novel, the review at the British Film Institute site is informative: Film of the week: What Maisie Knew. I suggest that you read these reviews before continuing with this post.

The film's official UK site appears to be here. It is the summary synopsis from this last site that provides an interesting observation of the intent of the film (my italics added):
A contemporary reimagining of Henry James' novel, WHAT MAISIE KNEW tells the story of a captivating little girl's struggle for grace in the midst of her parents' bitter custody battle. Told through the eyes of the title's heroine, Maisie navigates this ever-widening turmoil with a six-year-old's innocence, charm and generosity of spirit.
In this context, that term "grace" refers most immediately to a certain (human) dignity and presence that is sought amidst the chaos faced by Maisie, and which analogously indicates grace in a theological sense.

The question of marriage and relationships

As the reviews above point out, Henry James' novel was written at a time when divorce and family breakdown were relatively rare or were, at least, not recognised in the public culture of the time. Updating the film to a more contemporary setting asks of its audience a very different question than does the novel. Divorce and remarriage, and families in which parents of children are not married, are now much more common and are accepted as a "normal" part of the public culture.

There is a risk in commenting on What Maisie Knew that the particular narrative portrayed in the film is suggested as the only such narrative that occurs today; there are other narratives than the rather bohemian one shown in the film. This is a narrative starting with a divorce of married parents (though it was not obvious to me in watching the first part of the film that Maisie's parents were actually married), Maisie then being allotted ten day periods turn-and-turn-about with each parent. Re-marriage of both Maisie's parents then brings step-parents for Maisie, neither of those marriages surviving. And Maisie ends up with the (un-married) step parents finally living together in what would today be termed a "relationship".

What the film does attempt to do is to portray all of this from Maisie's point of view. And you cannot come away from the film without reflecting on just how difficult for Maisie is the fluidity and uncertainty in the movements of the marriages/relationships of her various parent figures.  This is perhaps iconically represented by the moment in the film when Maisie says " I want to go home" - and it really is impossible for the film goer at that point in the fim to know where, for Maisie, home actually is. Whilst the film shows a surprising resilience on Maisie's part - the resilience of children in difficult situations can often be under-estimated - and portrays one particular narrative that is not reflected in every experience of family break up, it nevertheless should also leave us asking some hard questions about a public culture which, through its provisions with regard to divorce and re-marriage and its societal acceptance of un-married couples raising families, creates a situation of insecurity in the care of children.

What Maisie Knew makes no reference to same-sex marriage or same-sex partnerships. A re-make in ten years time would in all likelihood do so. But, from the point of view of Maisie, does not this possibility only introduce an additional field of uncertainty and insecurity? Not only would she then face a question of "where is home?" or "who is Mum and who is Dad?" .... but also "what do the words 'Mum' and 'Dad' mean?".

Do we really want a society which brings up our children with this uncertainty in their family relationships?

The question of love

There are perhaps two moments in the film when Maisie demonstrates a sense of the meaning of the word love. One is when she says of Lincoln that she loves him; and the second occurs when Margo has been locked out of her apartment and is at that point homeless - Maisie goes and sits beside Margo on the floor outside the apartment and rests her head on Margo's shoulder. [This  latter is perhaps the most moving scene in the film.]

But throughout the expressions of love offered to Maisie by her birth parents are at once both entirely plausible and lacking in truth. Her Mum is shown dropping off Maisie at Lincoln's workplace, even when he is not there, so that she can go on tour with her band; and Dad leaves Maisie in America as he goes to Europe for work. From Maisie's point of view, there is an experience of the expressions of love made towards her by her parents - and the film portrays the genuineness of these expressions convincingly - and then of how, as she is caught between these expressions of love towards her that at the same time do not include the other parent, she gradually comes to recognise the lack that is buried away behind them. For both her birth parents, something else comes before Maisie - work and a new marriage partner.

The question that is not asked - nor answered - in the final sequence of the film is that about the un-married partnership between Lincoln and Margo. Maisie's choice is to stay with them rather than with her Mum, after she has already been shown making a choice not to accompany her Dad to Europe.

But is it really the case that an un-married relationship will provide Maisie with the security of love that has been denied her in the earlier parts of the film?

But I think What Maisie Knew really does do is pose a question to the film goer: what does the word "love" as used by some of the characters in the film - and as demonstrated by others without words - really mean? Does the protestation of one person for another that they love them really suffice as a basis for family life, or is there a more substantial objective content that needs to sit behind it?

Do we really want a society in which our children grow up with such a poor definition of what it means to love another?

Bring the two questions together

Which does bring us back to our first question about the marriage and relationships.

Today sees news reports from the leader of the Conservative Party  about a proposed tax advantage to be offered for married couples - but not one of any particular generosity and one which according to the BBC news report applies to same sex partners as well:
 "The £1000 marriage tax allowance will apply to straight and gay couples, as well as civil partners. Love is love, commitment is commitment."
David Cameron's defining of marriage only in terms of its profession of love and commitment - and without any further defining of an objective content to either term- seems to encapsulate the worst aspects of Maisie's experience. The Liberal Democrats are reported to be opposed to the measure altogether, I assume on the grounds that it does not favour single parents. They, too, seem to be somewhat adrift of Maisie's experience.

Perhaps our political leaders need to go and see What Maisie Knew. They might have their own narrative about marriage and relationships - but our children would appear to be experiencing a significantly different one. Though it would be wrong to say that the film defends one model of family over another (to use the current jargon), one cannot escape the fact that it does ask of the viewer very serious questions about how our public culture now understands love and marriage/relationships, and asks those questions in terms of what we might want for our children.

Perhaps marriage, understood as between one man and one woman for life, has something better to offer our children.....

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