In just two adaptations, author Brian Selznick has developed a reputation for inspiring intelligent and magical children’s films. After John Logan adapted “The Invention of Hugo Cabaret” for Martin Scorsese’s wonderful Hugo, Selznick has been upgraded to screenwriter to adapt his own novel for Todd Haynes’ lovely Carol follow-up, Wonderstruck.
Like Scorsese’s most surprising masterpiece, Wonderstruck follows the adventures of a girl and boy as they uncover their own hidden world behind the façade of a great global city. Where Hugo walked the secret corridors of Paris, Haynes’ film takes on New York in two gorgeously realized time periods. In 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley) is living with his aunt after losing his mother. When a freak accident leaves him deaf, he journeys to New York City in search of his absent father. In 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) has lived with deafness her whole life and travels to the Big Apple when she discovers that her favourite actress (Julianne Moore) is performing on Broadway.
The cosmic link between these two children may come across as mawkish to some, but I found their connection beautiful. The film’s greatest successes, however, are Carter Burwell’s exceptional score and the period detail. Burwell, longtime collaborator of the Coen Brothers, is a deftly talented composer and Haynes trusts him to do so much of the heavy lifting in the film’s numerous “silent” sequences: the 20s-set scenes are played without audible dialogue, and many of the 70s scenes as well. This leaves Burwell with so much sonic space to explore and he complements the action with an arsenal of specific sounds and tones. It really is a piece of art, and as close as a composer can come to auteurship.
As for the film’s look, Haynes elevates his already brilliant work in films such as Carol to create a fully realized time capsule. He’s aided by Edward Lachman’s sumptuous film cinematography, as 35 mm film stocks are used with anamorphic lenses to create a rich, textured filmic world. The popping colour of the 70s scenes is simply breathtaking, especially when contrasted with the black and white grain of the 20s, and Haynes delivers some of the most convincing period work in recent memory. The clothes, the faces and the advertising: there’s not a single missing link. This kind of world recreation doesn’t come cheap, and it’s a delight to see a filmmaker of Haynes’ caliber given such a worthy budget.
Wonderstruck is still a family film, though, and it’s unclear how these pleasures will translate for younger audiences. Where Hugo was infatuated with the movies, Wonderstruck is mesmerized by museums. Such institutions are subject to more competition for family attention than ever before, but one hopes that the wonder of a treasure trove of trinkets can still capture the imagination, even in a film that is so deliberately paced and holds back on its denouement.
The cast is incredibly strong. Fegley and Simmonds are confident focalizers, and Moore is as delightful a screen presence as always. But, for all the lovely adult performances, they are always in service of the young stars. Burwell’s masterful score or the transportive mise en scène alone would be enough to recommend Wonderstruck. As it stands, the touching story at its core makes Todd Haynes’ latest something special.
Benedict Seal (@benedictseal) is a UK-based film journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, VODzilla.co and New On Netflix.