MIFF review: Wonderstruck

Magic wrought in sound and vision sings loudly with precious few words. Todd Haynes emotionally dazzles once again.

There is a quiet moment, just before the emotionally soaring final act of Todd Haynes delicate and disarming Wonderstruck, that charges the air with the static hum of electricity – the arm hair-raising promise of an oncoming storm of revelation. It’s an ostensibly quiet scene on the surface, set in an all-but empty bookshop where the characters present largely communicate in sign language, and yet this pregnant hush, capping a deeply thoughtful film about memory and connection, prompted tears and they did not let up for the film’s remaining half-hour.

Based on Brian Selznick’s children’s novel of the same name, the author has adapted this stirring ode to belonging with its interlocking narratives of two 12-year-old children separated by decades but both drawn inexorably to New York’s Natural History Museum.

In 1927, New Jersey girl Rose (a delightful Millicent Simmonds), was born deaf, but resists her overbearing single father’s commands that she learn sing language, all the while wistfully dreaming of silent movie star Lillian Mayhew -Julianne Moore once again wonderfully teaming up with Haynes.

Fifty years later, in Gunflint Lake, Michigan, a restless Ben cannot prompt his Bowie-loving, dreamily distant single mum (Michelle Williams) to reveal who his father was. Sparking a quest of self-knowing, his investigation leads to a freak accident heaven-sent that finds him freshly deaf. Both kids decide that their only recourse to find out who they truly are and where they rightfully belong is to run away to the bright lights of Manhattan.

Recalling Scorsese’s Hugo, also adapted from a Selznick novel though with a much lighter touch, Haynes’ has fun with the very fabric of cinema while infusing the story with his signature style. Rose’s story is told in black and white and silent, with only Carter Burwell’s stirring score as accompaniment and use of inter-titles in Mayhew’s stormborn movie-within-a-movie. For the 1972 segments, regular cinematographer Edward Lachman employs a grainy look of golden-brown hued film take over as New York’s streets spangle with sequins, short shorts and plunging necklines, with expert help from another frequent collaborator in costume designer Sandy Powell and a disco whacka whacka rendition of the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme, dancing alongside Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ sows more wonder. A magnificent dual chase scene half a century apart uses shadow in the 20s and flashing light as Ben chases a new friend, Jamie (Jaden Michael), in the 70s. It may come a decade later, but thee are shades of The NeverEnding Story in a recurring, nightmarish wolf motif.

To say too much more about how either story proceeds or in what way they interweave would be to spoil a gloriously playful film that’s thrumming with life and the joys of wide-eyed childish wonder, so perfectly encapsulated by the museum cabinets and dioramas that intrigue both kids. Regularly quoting Oscar Wilde’s, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” there’s magic at play in the very DNA of this intriguing yarn, spinning gold from a far-fetched series of coincidences that nevertheless make perfect sense. Destiny born in the whispering halls of a dusty museum become the living songlines of language itself, with Hayne’s joyful use of sound and vision conveying the reality that human connection is much bigger than mere words.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords

★★★★1/2

Book tickets to see Wonderstruck at MIFF here.