Wonderstruck review: Todd Haynes delivers another in-competition film to international press at Cannes 2017, but can he top the sublime Carol?
Wonderstruck review by Paul Heath at the Festival de Cannes, 2017.
Back in 2015, filmmaker Todd Haynes was the toast of Cannes with his period romantic drama Carol, a film that competed for the prestigious Palme d’Or – it did lose out to Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan – but it did land Rooney Mara a tied Best Actress award for her stunning performance as Therese . The film garnered six Academy Award nominations months later, but lost out on every single one of them. Two years on and Haynes is back in the South Of France for another shot at the top prizes with Wonderstruck, a marvelously grand and ambitious effort based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Brian Selznick.
Selznick adapts his own work for the screen, his first screenwriting effort following his other popular children’s novel ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’ being adapted by John Logan for Martin Scorsese back in 2011. The story is set in two periods of time, 1927 and 1977 New Jersey and New York. We open to find Oakes Fegley‘s Ben grieving the death of his mother Elaine (Michelle Williams) – an event which happens in the opening scenes, so no huge spoilers – a librarian killed in a car crash leaving Ben alone in a town where nothing happens. Ben also doesn’t know his father and has just one clue to his existence, a bookmark from an old bookstore named Kincaid Books in New York City, where the words “Elaine, I’ll wait for you. Love, Danny…” are hand-written. This bookmark is the key to reveal more about Ben’s hidden past, the 12-year-old keen to find out what happened to the father he never knew.
Running alongside this story line is another taking place in the 1920s, and a young deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds), an insulated young girl who is seemingly besotted with the arts, and in particular the Hollywood star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), who she obsesses over in silent films like “Daughter of the Storm.” Tied to an almost solitary life in Hoboken, New Jersey, Rose ‘escapes’ and runs towards the bright lights of the Big Apple, seemingly to go after her idol who is performing on the Broadway stage.
Obviously these two stories are connected, the narrative drip-feeding information and the odd surprise throughout, Haynes opting for two very distinct approaches and looks for each. The sun-drenched summer of 1977 NYC is depicted alongside a highly-saturated black and white imagery for the 1920s scenes, Haynes once again teaming with Edward Lachman, his cinematographer on Carol to bring jaw-dropping imagery to the screen in almost every scene. The black and white scenes are presented very much with a silent movie feel, the action seamlessly moving from there to the more modern scenes, the filmmaker employing song’s like Bowie’s ‘Space Odyssey‘ and Sweet’s ‘Fox On The Run’ to great effect. A lot of the praise for the expertly executed transitions, tone and pacing should go to the amazing sound design, but also to the brilliant Affonso Gonçalves, again a Carol alumni and multiple award winner for his work on TV’s True Detective and Mildred Pierce. Surely an Oscar is in the bag for this?
As with Carol, the acting is superlative, the shining light in this being the work of feature debuter Simmonds and Fegley in career-defining roles. The latter builds upon the talent he displayed in the very under-appreciated Pete’s Dragon from last year and is easily one of the best things about the movie. Add in the always commanding presence of Moore, who once again shows why she is still one of Hollywood’s finest actresses. The final scenes particularly pull at the heartstrings, the actress not having much dialogue, but still managing to pull at the heartstrings and have tears falling from even the most-hardened film critics during its debut screening here in Cannes.
Wonderstruck is joyous, sometimes overwhelming but always engrossing and compelling – a dazzling, superbly crafted, very original and clever follow-up to Carol for the highly respected Haynes. This is masterful work, a wondrous, truly lovely heart-warmer that we loved from beginning to end. Prepare for very unexpected tears though.
Wonderstruck review, Paul Heath, May 2017.
Wonderstruck premieres at the Cannes Film Festival on May 18th 2017, and will be released in cinemas in late 2017.