Following Hugo, Wonderstruck is the second Brian Selznick book to find a home on the big screen. It’s every bit as ambitious as the Scorsese adaptation and equally beautiful, you just wish it were as coherent and less contrived.
Like Hugo, this is the tale of a boy and a girl from very different backgrounds but on a parallel journey. It is another adventure mystery that allows its director – Todd Haynes – to indulgence in the nostalgia of vintage cinema. This time, however, the polarisation of our protagonists’ background is much more cavernous, it iss a void of fifty years.
Ben (Pete’s Dragon’s Oakes Fegley) is a recently-orphaned twelve-year-old in 1977, now living with his neighbours. He pines for his late librarian mother (Michelle Williams), who has left him with only an Oscar Wilde quote and an unsatisfied longing to know more about his absent father.
Rose (A Quiet Place’s Millicent Simmonds), meanwhile, is a lonely child in 1927, caught in the rapture of silent film star Lillian Mayhew . She is trapped in a stringent home routine and by her deafness. In a clever twist, Rose’s story is told in the format of a silent film, sound effects and all.
Both youngsters run from their unhappiness in search their parental absentee. Both find themselves, decades apart and by different routes, in that cabinet of wonder: New York’s Natural History Museum. Things take a while to get going – the pace is leisurely – but they do eventually.
To capture Selznick’s aesthetic style, Haynes has brought with him – from Carol -cinematographer Edward Lachman. Once more, the pair are perfectly in tune and the result is chocolate-box delectable, a treat to behold. Lachman’s seventies are gorgeously golden; his roaring twenties, charmingly vintage. The two halves benefit too from enchanting performances by the two leads, with Simmonds particularly excelling in the expressive storytelling of silent cinema.
Indeed, on their own merits, each half is a pocket of potential, with an abundance of the magic that made Hugo sparkle. As a whole, however, Wonderstruck does not sadly. Haynes’ effort is commendable, certainly, but never quite finds harmony. It’s sophisticated for a family film, perhaps too much so, but lurches around uncomfortably in a way that leaves you questioning the point of it all far too soon in the run time.
Sensorily pleasing in all respects, Wonderstruck is a fractured fairytale.