Wonder Wheel Review
If ever there felt like a bad time to release a Woody Allen film this would probably be it. The well-publicised allegations that have recently resurfaced have seen a whole host of former cast members distance themselves from the director leaving him looking more isolated than ever. Amazon are apparently looking to terminate their working relationship with the 82-year-old and after his film struggled to gain exposure in US theatres, you wonder how many cinemas in the UK have held their nerve to uphold what was supposed to be a relatively wide release. Social politics aside, where does this leave Wonder Wheel the film?
The answer would be, in a surprisingly good place. Wonder Wheel has received a staggered release since coming out the gates at the start of December and the reviews have not been too kind. This is Allen’s forty-first film in as many years and while the quality of his extraordinarly high output has fluctuated wildly over that time, this is far from one of his worst. There is an undeniably theatrical feel about the setting and script which revolves around four characters, all of whom are cast under a heavy light of warm nostalgia and sun-kissed memories.
Kate Winslet’s Ginny Rannell is the main cog in a spiral of hopes and dreams that are ultimately dashed and left to limply spin round in motion. She is the once-grateful wife of Humpty (Jim Belushi) marooned out on the Coney Island boardwalk during the 50s. A former actress now working as a waitress, Ginny is stressed out by her pyromaniac son Richie (Jack Gore) and increasingly regretful about her decision to marry her abusive, alcoholic husband. A summer affair with local coastguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake) reinvigorates hopes of a new and better life with her younger lover, although the arrival of Humpty’s estranged daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple) unwittingly challenges the dynamics in Ginny’s world, both old and new.
While there has never been any doubt over the depth of talent Winslet possesses, it has felt like some time since we were witness to a truly great performance. And here, much like Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, she is transformed into magnetic force as a middle-aged woman trying to make sense of the choices that have led her to this point in her life. She gives Ginny a true sense of humanity and we want her to get the lucky break she deserves, even if Allen’s script doesn’t appear to share the same sentiment. Whether or not Winslet has been overlooked due to the drama surrounding Allen will never be known, but this is the sort of all consuming, big screen performance usually lapped up by the Academy and it is surprising not to have seen it at least given a mention.
Timberlake's Mickey is an aspiring playwright and narrates a story which intermittently cuts back to him talking directly to the camera about events from the past and the present. He is far more of a caricature whose lighter delivery is used as a counterbalance to soften the strained lives inside the Rannell household. While never spectacular, Timberlake does an efficient enough job that doesn't allow his popstar charisma to overshadow his ability to find the character within. Both Belushi and Temple add solid support to round out a quartet relishing the words given to them by Allen.
Allen's choice for the villain of the piece will burn more brightly than ever given the current social climate. Timing is everything and in this case the final twist in the tale will probably leave a bitter taste in the mouths of some sections of the audience. But it is the performances - in particular Winslet's - that manage to elevate this film beyond its more problematic issues. Mention must also be given to the legendary Vittorio Storaro, whose soulful cinematography lines the characters and sets with glowing yellows, blues and reds in tandem with the emotional beats of the narrative. What the future holds in store for Woody Allen remains to be seen but Wonder Wheel at the very least shows his creative spark is still in good working order.