Last year, Todd Haynes was involved in two projects that were shown during London Film Festival. Not only did he direct Academy-Award nominee Carol but he also served as the executive producer of Certain Women, which went on to win Best Film at the festival. This year, he has reunited with Far From Heaven star Julianne Moore to direct an adaptation of a 2011 novel by Brian Selznick.
Wonderstruck takes place in 1927 and 1977. In the former, Rose (newcomer Millicent Simmonds) runs away from her home in New Jersey to New York to find her actress mother Lillian Mayhew (Moore). In the later time period, Ben (Oakes Fegley) also runs away to New York to find his father.
While having the double-period narrative is integral to the story, it doesn’t translate very well on-screen. The action in Wonderstruck bounces back from silent black and white, to loud, brash technicolour, and it is easy to become confused by the initial lack of cohesion between the two plots, or the sudden changes in narrative. Even though it eventually leads to a lovely animated sequence, the film essentially comprises of two very stark contrasts that come across as long-winded in places.
However, the film is guided by its two compelling lead protagonists. Captured in black and white, Rose’s journey is beautifully guided through classical music, allowing the audience to see through her perspective. Deaf actress Simmonds is captivating as the curious Rose, as her incredibly expressive performance displays a natural acting talent. In comparison, Ben’s journey is captured in a melee of colour and sound, exuding a chaos that is so different to the sheer serenity of the 1920s. Fegley’s performance is more emotionally driven, as Ben struggles with the loss of his mother Elaine (Michelle Williams), as well as his newfound deafness. Moore is also a welcome addition to the cast, as she plays two very different roles in the film.
In essence, Wonderstruck captures the mystery and innocence of a child in a big, unfamiliar world. With scenes shot around the Natural History Museum and New York State Pavillion, the audience is taken on a sensory tour of the city but through the innocent eyes of the protagonists. In addition, Selznick’s screenplay the sparse dialogue is emotionally driven yet the lack of it is compensated by Haynes’ clever, subtle direction and Carter Burwell’s brilliant score.
Overall, Wonderstruck is captivating and incredibly creative, though its complicated narrative doesn’t do it any favours.
Director: Todd Haynes, Brian Selznick (scr,)
Stars: Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Millicent Simmonds, Jaden Michael
Runtime: 117 minutes