The plot of Wonderstruck sounds like a rhapsodic fable, blending childlike whimsy and New York City nostalgia to tell a story buoyed by orchestral music and magnificent visuals. The film follows two 12-year olds, a girl in 1927 and a boy in 1977, each navigating the American Museum of Natural History by themselves, and each deaf (the girl born that way, the boy after a recent accident). The museum links them together in some mysterious way and the director Todd Haynes attempts to illuminate that connection. But he is often overly concerned with details and the film gets bogged down in the particulars of the plot when it could have easily engrossed the audience in its mood and atmosphere alone.
Some of the blame should be laid at the feet of Brian Selznick, a YA (Young Adult) author and illustrator who adapted his own best-selling 2011 novel for this movie. His earlier book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, was filmed as Hugo by Martin Scorsese in 2011 and had a similar clockwork approach to storytelling; there was a mystery, relating to the past, which had to be painstakingly uncovered by a plucky orphan. Wonderstruck has a more obscure topic in mind: the “cabinets of wonder,” or curiosity cabinets, that were the precursor of museums of natural history and science. These are visually striking objects, to be sure - massive, overstuffed, room-sized pieces of furniture bursting at the seams with dinosaur bones, ancient weaponry, and all kinds of baroque imagery and art. Though the cabinets are beautiful creations designed to be taken in as illustrations, making them ideal for Selznick’s books (which are heavy on the art), they are less exciting onscreen. Although a beautiful film to behold, Despite being crammed with ideas and fine acting, Haynes’s cinematic approach to Wonderstruck feels inert at times
The 1927 storyline is silent and shot in black and white, mimicking the silent movies of the era, with a swelling score by the frequent Haynes collaborator Carter Burwell. Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is a lonely New Jersey girl apparently besotted with a great silent-film actress, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), and besieged at home by an imperious father, who locks her away out of concern that her deafness puts her in some indefinable danger. She escapes and goes on an adventure in New York, first seeking Lillian, and then finding herself in the Museum of Natural History.
Meanwhile, in the 1977 storyline (sound and muted color), the orphaned Ben Wilson (Oakes Fegley) is pining for his mother (Michelle Williams), who mysteriously refused to tell him who his father was. After she dies in a car accident and he’s deafened by a lightning strike, Ben runs away from his small-town home in Minnesota. Spurred by an old postcard he finds in a book, he also travels to New York in search of answers and gets lost in the Museum. There, in the wildlife diorama room he befriends Jamie (Jaden Michael), the son of an employee, who shows him the place’s hidden nooks and crannies where they discover evidence of Ben’s past – evidence that leads to a convergence of the two storylines. Moore is in this storyline too, in old-age makeup, showing up to fill in Ben on the missing details of his life (to explain further would be to spoil the movie). Although Haynes struggles to connect all the dots, this portion strains credulity.
Nonetheless, Wonderstruck is a sweet and gentle film with very good performances. Oakes Fegley is believable as a newly-deaf orphan who is desperate to find a connection. Julianne Moore has the most complex acting job (for reasons I won’t elaborate on) and accomplishes it with the effectiveness expected from this Oscar winner. And of course it is always a delight to see Michelle Williams, who enhances any movie she is in, however briefly. But the star of the show is new face Simmonds, a deaf actress from Utah. Her character Rose, with her nimble facial expressions, enlivens the 1927 silent-movie portions of the film. New York City is also practically a character, full of exciting opportunities and dark secrets, and the young protagonists explore these over the course of their personal missions. One never feels like he or she's looking at the City, but rather a child’s fanciful interpretation of it. The contribution of composer Burwell shouldn’t be underestimated. With no sound in the 1927 segments and a deaf character in the 1977 one, his music becomes paramount.
Like all of Haynes’ films (the brilliant Carol, the almost-brilliant Far from Heaven), Wonderstruck is beautifully shot, It is an innovative, evocative film and should delight those who go to see movies primarily for their aesthetics and style. But it is not nearly as successful when it comes to telling a story which, unfortunately, relies too much on contrivance and coincidence.
It takes some patience, but eventually Wonderstruck delivers real awe and, despite its flaws, is recommended.
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