Wonderstruck (PG) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Todd Haynes, US, 2017, 116 mins

Cast:  Millicent Simmonds, Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Jaden Michael

Review by Carol Allen

Wonderstruck is based on a novel by children’s writer Brian Selznick, whose work was also the basis for Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”, this is the story of two children from different time periods who both travel to New York on a personal quest.  

In 1927 Rose (Millicent Simmonds), who was born deaf, lives a strictly controlled life with her father in New Jersey.  She loves the movies, which are still silent – the first talkie, “The Jazz Singer”, came out later that year – and she keeps a scrapbook of her favourite actress, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). When she reads that Mayhew is to appear in a Broadway play, she sets off alone to the big city to find Lilian.

In 1977 in Minnesota Ben (Oakes Fegley) becomes deaf through a freak accident shortly after the death of his mother Elaine (Michelle Williams).  Among her possessions he finds a souvenir book from New York which gives him a clue to the identity of his unknown father.   So he too sets off alone for Manhattan.

The deafness of both children, neither of whom know sign language, makes their journeys particularly challenging.  But there is an even stronger link between these two, even though they are half a century apart.  It lies in the American Museum of Natural History.

Visually the two contrasting eras are beautifully evoked, with the elegance of the twenties, which is shot as a silent movie in black and white with music and effects, contrasting with the garish colours and noise of Manhattan in the seventies.   The film starts off rather slowly but picks up pace, interest and a sense of discovery as the two children gather information and find friends, who help them solve the intriguing mystery,  which links them.

Simmonds and Fegley as the children capture our empathy, helping us to identify with the experience of being deaf in a hearing world.   There is a charming performance from Jaden Michael as a little boy who befriends Ben and reveals some of the museum’s secrets to him and Moore also plays a second, contrasting role as the woman who reveals the link between the two children and the identity of Ben’s father.

The setting for this denouement is the Panorama of the City of New York in the Queens Museum, which is a huge, painstakingly created model of the entire city in miniature – the ultimate model village.   It is a stunning piece of craftsmanship and as Moore leads Ben through it while revealing her story, there is a certain tension in our fear that he might step on one of the beautiful miniature buildings.  The resolution of the story is satisfying enough, though it has to be admitted the route has been somewhat longwinded and some of you may have guessed the answer to the riddle by then. Lots of lovely visuals to look at along the way though.