sun 18/04/2021

Wonderstruck review - beautifully designed but emotionally unengaging | reviews, news & interviews

Wonderstruck review - beautifully designed but emotionally unengaging

Wonderstruck review - beautifully designed but emotionally unengaging

Todd Haynes's (double) period piece doesn't know if it's made for children or adults

What is it about Brian Selznick’s ornate illustrated fictions that leads good directors to make bad films? Turning The Invention of Hugo Cabret into Hugo was a near disaster for Scorsese, and now comes Todd Haynes’s stifling adaptation of Selznick’s novel, Wonderstruck.

Two different narratives intertwine, one set in the 1970s, the other in the 1920s. Both centre on children battling with hearing loss who embark on a solo quest in New York searching for an absent parent. Eventually their lives overlap, but it takes forever to get there. At one point the Julianne Moore character tells a child, "I need you to be patient with this story", but by then it’s way, way too late. 

The three child actors are not hugely engaging, although Rose (played by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, main picture) is at least very striking to look at and gives it her all. The two boys are cute moppets (Oakes Fegley, pictured below) but don’t have much to do but hide out for days in the American Museum of Natural History dodging adults in a wholly unbelievable way. It’s amazing that they didn’t stumble into the crew setting up for the Night at … series.WonderstruckAs in his work on other period films like Carol, Haynes has put together an expert team of art directors and costumiers (including Britain's own wondrous Sandy Powell) and given them full rein to show their talents. The magnificent DP Ed Lachman does an expert job of capturing the grungy streets of Manhattan in the Seventies in Kodak colour. This homage to the mean streets of early Scorsese and the Harlem of the blaxploitation era is impressive. The lustrous black and white sequences set in the Twenties are perhaps a little weaker and a touch clichéd. There’s real artistry in Haynes' homage to DW Griffiths in the film-within-a-film, although Moore goes over the top as a melodrama star.

But ultimately one comes away with the impression that far more thought has gone into creating impressive tableaux and evoking the patina of the past than working on a dynamic narrative or getting absorbing performances out of its young stars. Towards the end, Haynes breaks into charming stop-frame animation, but it’s not enough to save Wonderstruck; it’s simply too mannered for children and too slow for adults. For a far more modest but moving portrayal of life as a deaf child, the Oscar-winning British short, The Silent Child, is currently on iPlayer


Overleaf: watch the trailer for Wonderstruck

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