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From the London Film Festival 2017: ‘Wonderstruck’ Review

On the second day of the London Film Festival we had Wonderstruck, a new family film by Carol director Todd Haynes. In attendance at the screening was the aforementioned director, along with  screenwriter and author of the original novel Brian Selznick, and young stars Oakes Fegley and Jaden Michael.

The film depicts two young deaf children running away from home to hunt their parental figures in New York. The children are separated by half a decade; one story is set in 1927, the other in 1977. As they begin to explore the same spaces fifty years apart it becomes clear that their stories are linked and that the two children share a destiny.

Haynes said that he wanted to make a really good children’s movie that would entertain and challenge young audiences. I’ll be very interested to see how children react to the film as there is a very ambitious narrative. The 1927 scenes are presented like a silent, black and white film whilst the 1977 scenes have the grain and colour of New Hollywood indie flicks. There are also some animated sequences. The effect is a very seamless transition between narratives with a unique visual style.

The film is beautifully shot and edited. My favourite sequence involved long panning shots of a giant diorama of New York with miniature scenes playing within. These sequences are where the film shows particular imagination, and the purest visual storytelling, which Haynes tells us was a motivator for his involvement in the film.

The writer of the novel also wrote the screenplay for the film, and there are some unfortunate and all too familiar results of this decision. I feel that asking an author to edit their work down to feature film length is like handing someone a knife and asking them to make their child a foot shorter. Consequently the film is quite long and has some pacing issues, particularly at the beginning of the film, where there’s no obvious narrative focus for a good 15 minutes.

Authors also often have trouble appreciating the purely visual language of cinema. Therefore we still have an abundance of narration and characters speaking their emotions aloud. A large exposition scene near the end of the film was visually competent enough to have just played out to music.

The music is particularly expressive in this film. Haynes works again with Carter Burwell who excels with the silent movie style score as well as his usual deft sentimentality. David Bowie’s Space Oddity and a disco version of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra were perfectly used in key emotional sequences.

The performances of the two young lead men were mostly fine. Although, on occasion their acting was a bit of the school play variety and the certainly didn’t  reach the same heights as Asa Butterfield in Hugo (another Brian Selznick adaptation), but there was a believable and endearing friendship between them. The film is, however, completely stolen by Millicent Simmonds, the female lead. Her performance is hugely sophisticated for such a young actress. She achieves a subtle sadness and a real sense of wonder within her surroundings.

Speaking of which, the set design for this film was incredible. Everything from Ben’s mother’s room to the museum of natural history has so much depth and detail. The exterior shots of New York from the 20s and the 70s are all beautifully evocative. You want to explore the film’s places, which makes it easy to relate to the childish sense of wonder.

Wonderstruck may not be the flawless transition from page to screen that Scorsese’s Hugo was, but it’s an excellent kids film with a lot of heart and imagination. It’s mind bending plot structure and gorgeous visuals are sure to excite the minds of child and adult alike. Just give it a little while to really get going.

3 / 5

Paul Salt is the host of One Good Thing.