Wonderstruck (2017)

Jaden Michael, Oakes Fegley, and Julianne Moore in WonderStruck

In Wonderstruck Todd Haynes opens a cabinet of cinematic wonders as two lonely children’s stories interlink 50 years apart in the magic of New York.

Looking at the stars

by Alexa Dalby

Wonderstruck

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck is a beautifully crafted, magical homage to cinema, the imagination and communication told through two stories separated in time by 50 years that lock together like a time-spanning puzzle. It’s an adaptation of the book by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the screenplay.

In 1927, Rose, a deaf girl (a debut for Millicent Simmonds, deaf in real life), longs to find her mother and she runs away from Hoboken to New York where she thinks she will find her. The 1927 scenes are filmed in black and white and are silent, mirroring Rose’s deafness. Rose cries at silent films but symbolically it’s also the cusp of the era when the talkies will come in. In 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley), growing up in Gunflint, MInnesota, wants to find the father he doesn’t remember. When he becomes deaf in a freak lightning strike, he too runs away to New York to follow a clue he finds in his mother’s treasured possession, a book titled The Cabinet of Wonders. His story is told in colour and sound, only silent when we are seeing it through his eyes. All around him in New York there’s a cacophony of noise, colour, litter and a sidewalk full of passers-by sporting ’70s Afros. The period detail for both eras is by Haynes’ longtime costume designer Sandy Powell.

Ben’s quest to find the bookshop the treasured book came from takes him, with a new friend and guide Jamie (Jaden Michael), to the Museum of Natural History, where clues reveal part of the mystery. Rose’s quest took her there too and their two adventures are intercut quickly to lead their two stories forward.

As both children are deaf, the deaf person’s silent world and communication, either written or by sign language, plays a central part and it’s very tactile. Sound design too is significant in creating silent and noisy worlds.

New York is shot in both time zones as a magical place – skyscrapers glowing with light in the 1920s’ black and white cityscapes and vibrant with screaming 1970s orange and brown in bustling Harlem streets, all reinforced by music of the time. Cinematographer Edward Lachman shot the fim in colour negative in a wide aspect ratio. As well as a homage to film history, Wonderstruck is a homage to the diorama world of model making, where life is also played out in miniature, a theme that runs in surprising ways through the film.

Julianne Moore plays two parts. It’s the fourth time she and Haynes have worked together following Safe, Far From Heaven and I’m Not There and her part is central. Michelle Williams is angst-ridden in a cameo as Ben’s mother. Haynes has created a beautiful artefact, layer upon layer, a mainstream film that is both sophisticated and innocent.

Wonderstuck premiered at the 70th Cannes Film Festival, screend at the 61st London Film Festival and is released on 6 April 2018 in the UK.

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