Wonderstruck

Directed by Todd Haynes

Wonderstruck? Dumbstruck more like, that a great director can turn in such a lame and saccharine effort as this. The story of two troubled but enterprising children, 50 years apart, who make their ways to New York and who are uncannily connected finally comes together via parallel narrations across the generations, mixing film styles in a way that ought to be interesting but somehow fails. Hard to think many children will be truly taken up by this prolonged and sometimes slow narrative, and a film with child protagonists has to be more striking than this to make a real impression on adult audiences.

Rose is a Deaf girl with a glamorous, absent, cold mother (Julianne Moore – of course) and an uptight, domineering father with whom she lives –it’s hard to think of these two co-existing in the same space long enough to produce a child. Her story, from the days of silent cinema, is shot in the melodramatic style of that period’s films. Accomplished enough, but Rose’s unlikely New York exploits never quite engage us, despite the good work of Millicent Simmonds (herself a Deaf actress).

50 years later Ben (Oakes Fegley) longs to know the identity of his father, something always kept from him by his mother (though the reason for this seems opaque). He finds a message of love scribbled on a bookshop’s bookmark when searching through his mother’s things, and despite a (highly contrived) life-changing accident, he travels to a New York that’s edgy and vibrant and vividly portrayed. Haynes has caught the flavour of the period, brilliantly (as ever) – Harvey Keitel in his flares must surely be lurking in one of those doorways. Turns out that both children in their turn find a haven in the Natural History Museum, which in the case of Ben leads to very extended wanderings in there in company with the boy who has befriended him, a son of a worker there who knows the secret places (shades of Night at The Museum). And there’s the mysterious lady who lurks around the prehistoric diorama. Ben finds his bookshop, and… If the film was unsatisfactory before, it surely strains the endurance and credibility of the audience here, despite some lovely visual sequences involving an evening visit to a scale model of the city.

Coincidences, parallel experiences and chance meetings coalesce – can it be there’s a divinity that shapes our ends? But there is no wonderment, no prickling of the hairs on the back of your neck, and the revelation of how everything fits together is, oddly, as if running out of invention, done in pedestrian fashion by a voice-over reading from a notebook. So, everything is resolved in one of those stock scenes of smiley happy people. It’s not the actors’ fault, and the two young leads in particular give stirling performances, but at times this feels almost like a more cerebral version of one of those lukewarm Children’s Film Foundation efforts of the mid-Twentieth Century.

Much has been made of the centrality of Deafness with Deaf children as active heroic protagonists, and that is indeed very admirable. But a good cause does not necessarily make a good film, nor does an acclaimed novel, like the one by Brian Selznick this was based on.

But then everyone is allowed a dud occasionally, even a master film-maker.

Seen at London Film Festival, October 2018

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