LFF 2017: Wonderstruck Review
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Todd Haynes has become synonymous with Hollywood glamour and style, and his latest offering - the mystery period drama of Wonderstruck - is surely all about style. After the beautifully crafted 1950s period romance of Carol, Haynes tackles the likes of silent movies in a rather lovely strand of his latest tale.
The story, based on the novel and now screenplay by Brian Selznick, focusses on two timelines: one following a boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley) in the 1970s coping with his Mother (Michelle Williams) passing suddenly, and then venturing to New York in search of his birth father; the other following a deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) in the 1920s leaving her horrible home life in search of her favourite movie star, Lillian Mayhew (Haynes favourite Julianne Moore). The relevance of each child to the other is part of the mystery, beyond the parallels of their journeys.
Both strands have their draws. While the 1977 segments have the more involving story following the grieving Ben's search for a long lost father that he knows very little about, there is a beautiful innocence to the silent black and white story of the 1927 young deaf girl Rose - but there is a twist which only furthers the parallels. Beautiful photography is part and parcel of the Haynes experience, and in both arcs this is apparent. The 1977 scenes have that Seventies hue that only colour-negative film can provide, while the 1927 tale's seamless use of a continuous score and no dialogue to add to the lovely black and white cinematography is perfect, somehow making the thinner plot more affecting than its more modern counterpart.
The location of New York City and its bright lights and wildness are also a huge part of Wonderstruck as both children are amazed by what the metropolis has to offer; all of the exciting endless possibilities of adulthood. Whether it be the sweltering heat of the revolutionary 1970s or the cool and sleek promise of the 1920s, New York increases in importance as the story progresses. The finale itself intertwines the two tales even further, but somehow fails to truly hit the mark despite its stylistic and beautiful technique in explaining itself. It was as though all the right emotional elements were there but somehow it failed to make its true impact, despite all the excellent work Moore is doing to really sell it.
All of the performances are particularly good. Fegley is entirely natural and sympathetic as the persistent Ben, while Simmonds is a real find as Rose. Haynes not only made the right call to cast a deaf child actress for political reasons, but he cast an actress with such presence and heart emanating from her that it's hard to not be wrapped up in young Rose's journey. Julianne Moore offers us some highly emotional work also, the type which we have come to always expect from her. Michelle Williams has little screen time but evokes sadness whenever she is present as Ben's enigmatic Mother, but perhaps she is kept too much at a distance. Child actor Jaden Michael also impresses as Jamie, a child that Ben befriends in the search for his father, but has a story of his own that plays into the themes of juvenile loneliness and the pain of growing up.
Overall, Wonderstruck is a picture-perfect adaptation of Selznick's novel and is accompanied with an obvious love of cinema and growing up, similar to Scorsese's adaptation of Selznick's Hugo, but with a stylistic focus on the unspoken akin to Haynes' masterpiece Carol. However, the narrative pay-off doesn't land in the most effective way it could do, meaning it fails to be one of the auteur's best.