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Wonderstruck DVD review - Todd Haynes' temporal displacement leaves him at a loss


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Verdict: The Carol director flounders in this adaptation from the writer of Hugo.

In Todd Haynes’ previous film, Carol (2015), cinematic ‘purity’ was woven into the film’s existence. Shot on film (Super 16 mm, no less), it brought about tones of both forgotten home movies and Hollywood romance, as much a love story between Haynes and cinema as it was Therese and Carol in the film. Yet, that purity is also there to reflect the hegemony of America’s nuclear family in the 1950s, which Therese and Carol directly contradict with their romance. For much of the film, because of the earnestness of the two characters trying to control their urges, their attraction to each other is unspoken – an undertone.

Going back and examining Carol gives us an understanding of why Wonderstruck fails. Here, in the interwoven stories of two societally displaced children 50 years apart, its earnestness is a pitfall. Haynes equates simplicity in storytelling to a fable, and might have succeeded in doing so if he weren’t so obtuse about the details of the film’s narrative.

In 1970s Minnesota, Ben is frustrated by his mother’s refusal to tell him about his father. After she dies suddenly, and a separate accident leaves Ben deaf, he resolves to discover the truth in New York. Simultaneously, Rose, a young girl in the 1920s, has also sought out her own disillusioned parent in Manhattan – an actress of stage and screen whom she believes will give her a place to belong.

Haynes’ cinephilia is just as obvious here as in Carol, but it is not nearly as well-served by how he treats the material. The 1920s segment of the film is entirely silent (both a cinematic choice and a narrative one – Rose is also deaf) and in black and white, and yet uses none of the visual language of cinema from that era. Such is the case with the 70s segment, prettily discoloured as though it were a New Hollywood flick, but otherwise directed in exactly the same way as the other story. Perhaps Haynes’ desire was for homogeneity between the two parts, but one is left longing for a film that throws itself into its influences a little more.

His other glaring problem, one that may well share the blame with Brian Selznick’s screenplay, is that the two stories feel inconsequential on their own, requiring the context of the other to feel whole. Yet, Ben’s story in the 70s is given far greater focus, and Rose’s constitutes merely a prelude to his for reasons that will remain unspoilt, forcing the audience to consider them separately. When this is done, the stories are painfully thin. If all the film is attempting to say is, “Some children feel out of place”, this is stated plainly near the beginning and so renders the remaining runtime useless.

The suspicion of this critic is that Selznick was unable to transfer his work from page to screen, as the film ditches what was presumably a thought-driven narrative in the novel. Save for one exquisite sequence near the climax involving miniatures, what happens in Wonderstruck is mostly literal, when what was required was far deeper. Words that were left unspoken worked in Carol; they don’t here.

Wonderstruck is out now on Digital Download, Blu-Ray, and DVD, distributed by StudioCanal.

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