You wouldn’t associate acclaimed director Todd Haynes ('Carol', 'I'm Not There', 'Far From Heaven') with the children’s film genre - but then you wouldn’t have said the same for Martin Scorsese. In 2011, Scorsese adapted Brian Selznick’s novel ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’ into the film ‘Hugo’ to great acclaim, and now Haynes brings Selznick’s novel ‘Wonderstruck’ to the screen. Where ‘Hugo’ was a flashy, empty film hampered by the novelty of its setting and technology, ‘Wonderstruck’ has far more to offer its audience as both a narrative of lost souls seeking answers and a piece of cinematic invention.
‘Wonderstruck’ follows along two timelines. The first, set in 1977, tells the story of orphaned boy Ben (Oakes Fegley) who discovers a mysterious book about New York’s Natural History Museum in the belongings of his deceased mother Elaine (Michelle Williams). Believing it might lead him to discover who his father is, he decides to run away to New York and see if he can track down where the book came from. The second, set in 1927, tells the story of Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a young deaf girl who runs away from her stifling home life to find actress Lilian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), who she believes will offer her a better life.
While ‘Hugo’ was a dull mess. ‘Wonderstruck’ is a far more engaging and, at times, very moving experience - mostly due to the fact that Haynes is able to carry over his aesthetic sensibilities and his particular sense of palpable melancholy. While each sequence is handled in its own unique manner (Ben’s story looks like a lost 70s film, while Rose’s story is brought to life like a classic silent film), the thematic similarities in the two stories holds the film together in a way that usually only works in novel form, but here feels necessary and organic. Both Ben and Rose are children adrift, unsure of where they fit in the world, and their natural need to belong to someone drives them on the same journeys of discovery. Neither Haynes nor Selznick patronise the audience or the children, allowing the film to deliver genuine emotional punches. You feel and fear for Rose and Ben (especially watching Ben navigate through the dangerous concrete jungle of 70s New York), and Haynes finds a level of integrity in their views and perspectives on the world, its moral conundrums and in their developing concepts of mortality that few other directors have been able to when telling stories involving children.
For the weight of its thematic material, ‘Wonderstruck’ is an endlessly inventive and imaginative film in its approach. There are no flashes of magic or fantasy other than what the real world can offer, and by sticking so closely to Ben and Rose’s perspectives, landscapes adults might find ordinary (like a museum or a bookshop) become places of endless possibility and danger. The visual approach - to lend each timeline its own texture - is a wonderful decision and very much what we would expect from Haynes, the 1927 sequence in particular a real triumph. Holding all the pieces together is Carter Burwell’s beautiful score, which allows Haynes to establish the thematic links long before the two halves begin to converge. It seems obvious in hindsight that ‘Wonderstruck’ would work so well on film since so much of it is about experiencing the world visually as opposed to aurally, and the care with which the film approaches the experiences of being hearing impaired is highly commendable and often very moving. It would be easy to turn it into a movie-of-the-week drama buckling with high emotion, but in ‘Wonderstruck’ it is a fact of life that just needs to be navigated.
Key to this is the casting of the children. Oakes Fegley improves further on his great work in ‘Pete’s Dragon’ (2016) in ‘Wonderstruck’, demonstrating great maturity as an actor as he handles some of the most emotionally challenging material in the film. He’s complemented beautifully by Jaden Michael as Jamie, who finds Ben in the Museum of Natural History in a state of distress and helps him on his journey. The two boys have terrific chemistry together. The real standout of the film though is Millicent Simmonds, who practically steals the film as Rose. Simmonds herself is deaf, so she thrives in the film language Haynes uses to tell Rose’s story. Her performance is filled with so much determination, detail, spunk and a refusal to be disadvantaged in any way, and the depth of her expression is often extraordinary. The adult cast are uniformly excellent, but this film belongs to the kids and everything they and Haynes does is in service to allowing them to deliver the best performances they can.
Both Ben and Rose are children adrift, unsure of where they fit in the world, and their natural need to belong to someone drives them on the same journeys of discovery.
While it’s easy to be impressed and beguiled by ‘Wonderstruck’, it always remains a melancholy experience. The ending is emotionally resonant and quiet, appropriate for the gentle manner in which the film is handled, but has you leaving the cinema in a similarly quiet sense of contemplation. It also takes its time, and while the journey is worth it, I did find myself letting much of the film wash over me. After the emotional sucker-punch of ‘Carol’ and the bravado of ‘I’m Not There’, this feels like a much more contemplative meditation from Haynes.
It’s still very much a Todd Haynes film in the best sense: still a story of outsiders cast adrift in the world, trying with quiet desperation to find somewhere safe and protected. His transition to a children’s film hasn’t meant a loss of his voice as an artist; in fact, ‘Wonderstruck’ is the best kind of children’s film, one that speaks to their experiences without ever patronising them, and representing the deaf community with great respect and understanding. In its own way, it’s a magical, imaginative, technically daring and uncompromising film, and while you might not walk away from it in explosions of emotion, you do have the feeling that you’ve just been offered something special and unique.