Cannes review: Wonderstruck (2017)

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


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 puzzle. It’s an adaptation of the book by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the screenplay. Working out the time-spanning puzzle is involving and the journey is tear-jerking.

In 1927, Rose, a deaf girl (a debut for Millicent Simmonds, who is deaf in real life), longs to find her mothe and she runs away from Hoboken to New York. The 1927 scenes are filmed in black and white and are silent, mirroring Rose’s deafness. Rose cries at silent films but the talkies are about to 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 a treasured possession of his mothers, 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 sound, colour, litter and ’70s Afros. The period detail for both eras is by Haynes’ longtime costume designer Sandy Powell.

Ben’s quest to find the bookshop the 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 takes her there too and their two adventures are intercut quickly to lead the stories forward. At the press conference following the premiere of the film, Haynes said that he showed each successive version to children for their opinion on how it should be edited: “Kids kept guiding us in the process and helped us determine when to make the transition from one story to another and on getting an emotional connection to the characters.”

As both children are deaf, the deaf person’s silent world and communication, either written or by sign language, plays a central part. Haynes said it’s a tribute to what you can do with your hands, it’s very tactile. Sound design too is significant in creating silent and noisy worlds, together with upfront music composed by Carter Burwell.

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, and Haynes sees this as his homage to film. As well as a homage to film, Wondestruck 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.

Haynes gets terrific performances from all three childen. Julianne Moore plays two parts – Rose’s distant mother and gracious Rose as an adult. 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. Todd Haynes, in contrast to his previous romantic drama Carol has created a beautiful artefact, layer upon layer, a mainstream film that is both sophisticated and innocent – he has used his own unique style to make a film for both children and adults.

Wonderstuck is showing at the 70th Cannes Film Festival.

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