Film and TV Editor Charlie Gearon reviews Wonderstruck, Todd Haynes’ most recent feature showing at BFI’s London Film Festival
Wonderstruck seems to have been built up around an idea which, on paper at least, sounds original and innovative. This idea involves combining silent cinema with sound cinema in an attempt to further explore the deafness of the film’s two central protagonists.
The two respective strands of the film, one set in the 1920s and the other in the 1970s, follow the parallel journeys of two young teenagers played by Millicent Simmonds and Oakes Fegley respectively. Both run away from home in the hope of finding a missing parent in New York while struggling to navigate through the city with the burden of their lack of hearing.
Haynes’ approach to evoking an emotional response from the audience is to pile on the sentimentality and melodrama
As ingeniously simple as dealing with deafness with silent cinema sounds, Wonderstruck entirely fails to run with the idea in any meaningful way. The two plotlines feel artificially stitched together and the parallels between the two stories are laid on far too thick. Every step Ben (Fegley) makes in the 70s is mirrored by an almost identical step by Rose (Simmonds) in the 20s. Subtlety and the use of a light touch clearly weren’t in Tod Haynes’ remit while cobbling together this film.
This heavy-handedness often extends into Wonderstruck’s dialogue. The exchanges between Ben and Jamie, the friend he meets while in New York, are frequently twee and rarely believable. It fails to capture the realistic pre-pubescent interactions between males which films like Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986) or more recently Stranger Things (2016) both portray so perfectly. It seems Haynes’ approach to evoking an emotional response from the audience is to pile on the sentimentality and melodrama, a method which rapidly becomes tiresome and ineffective.
This sentiment-driven ethos is overly prevalent from the first moments of Wonderstruck. Every teenage Tumblr user’s favourite Oscar Wilde quote, ‘we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’ flashes across the screen before Ben and his pre-deceased mother (Michelle Williams) have a heated argument about the identity of the boy’s father while David Bowie’s Space Oddity plays.
This is obviously not to detract from the artistic credibility of Wilde or Bowie, but somehow finding a way to shoehorn in both of these references in the first five minutes gives a fairly concise indication of just how far the cringe-inducing aspects of this film stretch. A film has to earn the right to make these references. Wonderstruck almost seems to be using them as a half-hearted attempt to reel viewers in with the promise of artistic credibility: a promise which, unfortunately, is never fulfilled.
Visually, the film is largely uninteresting save for a few scenes. Perhaps the film’s most visually exciting shot comes when Ben, upon arriving in New York, leaves the bus station and is greeted by a colourful cacophony of flares, deep necklines and winged collars while Deodato’s jazz-funk rendition of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (aka the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme) drowns out the noise of the city.
Aside from this, and perhaps a few other moments, the Wonderstruck offers very little. Only two years on from the release of 2015’s critical success Carol, expectations for Todd Haynes’ most recent feature certainly eclipse the actual success of Wonderstruck. It’s a confused film which, despite its conceptual strength, fails to deliver on almost every front.
Wonderstruck will get its UK theatrical release in mid-November
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