Two just-teenage runaways arrive in New York City, one in monochrome 1927 and the other in the notorious, sultry summer of 1977. That’s the simple premise of Todd Haynes’s latest, Wonderstruck, a film that is as rich as it is gentle. The film is based, as Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was, on a graphic novel by Brian Selznick, but this is more impressionistic and less didactic than that affectionate tribute to Georges Meliès. There is a silent cinema connection again, though. Both children are deaf, and the 1920s scenes are filmed entirely silent, but this is no fussy exercise in cinematic nostalgia; it’s a film about deaf culture, but also the silence of loneliness, of being friendless in a big city, or unloved at home.
In fact, and let’s get this out of the way at the very beginning, the brief silent-film-within-the-film here is a thuddingly offkey pastiche, witlessly mashing up The Wind and Way Down East with bone-headed intertitles. That aside, there are some nice mockups of silent-era movie magazines, and a couple of nods to Nosferatu and The Crowd, but Haynes is doing something more interesting than reconstruction. His film, carried along by Carter Burwell’s brilliantly alive score, creates an almost silent movie – a wordless communion between two periods of time, interrupted by snatches of dialogue.
The way that Wonderstruck flits between the stories of Rose, the 1920s child, and Ben, five decades later, is remarkably deft, and never forced. The transitions sometimes carry immense weight, and significance, and at other times are simply playful – exploiting the cinema’s licence with those old theatrical constants of time and space. The 1920s scenes are taken in crisp, charcoal black-and-white, while 1970s sequences are misted over with a warm, yellow, as soft as the polaroids taken by Ben’s new pal Jamie (Jaden Michael). There’s a very tactile grubbiness to the later scenes, though, the muckiness of Manhattan cuts through the amber glow of nostalgia. There’s a thrill each time we flit between these two very different worlds, and this is the way that Wonderstruck reels us in, to learn more about the thread that connects Ben and Rose. As with Haynes’s last film Carol, the texture of the cinematography itself (again by Ed Lachman) is part of the story: from the opening scene of Ben’s nightmare, seen in terrifying snatches, onwards, including, flashes of lightning and bursts of sunshine.
In this profoundly melancholic film, these two unhappy children, fifty years apart, gravitate to the American Museum of Natural History. While the title of the film hints at the fascination of the exhibits behind the glass, the museum is not an attraction so much as a refuge for solitary children. They hide in the silence, in the dark corners and distracted crowds, and dream of spending the night alone among the dioramas and relics. The tone here is not sentimental, but seriously sad. Although Wonderstruck is aimed at children, its mixture of nostalgia and loss could reduce grown adults to sobs.
Young Rose, played by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, and Ben, played by hearing actor Oakes Fegley, never meet, but their stories pivot around two characters played by Julianne Moore. In 1927, she’s the movie star in the pastiche – Lillian Mayhew – who makes a swift transition to Broadway after the talkies arrive with anachronistic, devastating swiftness. I won’t give away where else she appears, but she’s wonderful in her second incarnation – a warm and comforting presence in a film where adults are rarely kind. Simmonds and Fegley both give very compelling performances here and Simmonds in particular is a fantastic actress, with a memorably clenched smile in the face of parental malice.
The film lags as it enters its second hour, when there’s a little too much chatty exposition and not so much photographic witchcraft. But then, Haynes reaches all the way back to his infamous short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, and concocts a backstory-reveal that is one of the most sincerely moving things I have seen at the cinema in a long time.
The critics have been divided over this film since its Cannes debut, but the naysayers seem to have carried the day. Wonderstruck has only been given a small UK release and little publicity, especially considering the wild and well-deserved success of Carol. In fact, I was the only audience member at my afternoon screening. Please do seek it out if you can, it’s a very remarkable film.
- Wonderstruck is out now.
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