Cannes film review: Wonderstruck
Martyn Conterio | On 18, May 2017
Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Julianne Moore, Millicent Simmonds, Oakes Fegley, Tom Noonan
US rights owned by: Amazon Studios
With Amazon Studios and Netflix both premiering films at Cannes this year, we head to the Croisette to check out the latest offerings and acquisitions from VOD’s big players.
Based on the novel by Brian Selznick (Hugo), if the book Scorsese turned into a 3D marvel was a love letter to French cinema pioneer George Melies, Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck (2017) is a salutation to silent-era masters DW Griffith and FW Murnau. The Griffith parallels occur in the extensive use of cross-cutting (the film is set in 1927 and 1977) and melodramatic verve of the plot. Murnau’s influence is apparent in the often extraordinary aesthetics and camera trickery, as well as the journey two kids undertake to the big city (reminiscent of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, 1927).
Wonderstruck is a marked departure for Todd Haynes. From his early experimental successes to lauded Sirkian melodramas, such as Far From Heaven (2002) and Carol (2015), he’s arguably the last person in the room you’d expect to go and make a drama about two orphans in the storm called life.
Ben (Oakes Fegley) is bereft when librarian mum Elaine (Michelle Williams) is killed in an accident. All alone in the world, he sets off from his hometown in Minnesota to the bright lights of NYC, in search of the father who abandoned them years before (or so Ben thinks). In 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is obsessed with big screen star Lilian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) and also runs away, taking the ferry across the Hudson River to be among the daunting towers of Manhattan. How the stories ultimately connect is best left alone: the mysterious threads are part of the film’s puzzle-like narrative and thematic weight.
While Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams and Tom Noonan are the most recognisable adult faces, Wonderstruck is spearheaded by newcomers Fegley and Simmonds. Millicent is very impressive as Rose, a deaf child. Her face lights up the screen and the performance harks back to the kind of naturalistic style that revolutionised screen acting then, moving it away from the overbearing, mad-eyed ham theatrics that dominated the medium’s early years. Simmonds is exactly a Gish-like waif straight out of a Griffith masterpiece or one of Charlie Chaplin’s 1920s gems.
Magical without resorting to fantasy, emotional without sliding into schmaltz or excessively forcing sentimentality into its denouement, Haynes has delivered the goods once more, with feeling, proving he is an auteur approaching god-level genius. Renowned composer Carter Burwell’s score, too, is one of his very best in years.
Backed by Amazon Studios, who are distributing the movie in the US, Wonderstruck is unusual – and pleasingly so – for what will be sold as a kids flick, as it’s by a director bravely out of his comfort zone crafting something precious and deeply moving.