There’s a moment when a boy in Todd Haynes’s new film, Wonderstruck, discovers an old book containing clues to a deeply hidden secret he is trying to unravel. “The job of a museum curator,” he reads in tones of great wonder (for nobody in the film ever speaks in anything but tones of great wonder) “is to choose the objects that go in the museum.” Why a child would be transported into a catatonic state of awe by such prosaic writing isn’t made clear — but the line resonates throughout the film, because Todd Haynes is nothing if not a diligent curator of this garbled, syrupy film. His directorial tricks, the way he presents this material to us, reveal his consummate talent but cannot paper over the weaknesses in the material.
Wonderstruck finds Haynes in formally dexterous mode: he ably plays two parallel narratives off each other, one set in 1927, in which a deaf girl travels to New York to visit her film-star mother (Julianne Moore), and one set in the 1970s in which Ben (Oakes Fegley), a young boy struck deaf by lightning, attempts to find out the identity of his father. The ways their stories intertwine and call back to each other ultimately hold the key to the mystery Ben is seeking to uncover.
To begin with, this juxtaposition is a lot of fun: while the 70s segment is played fairly straight, Haynes brilliantly meshes it with a pastiche of silent film for the sections set in 1927, helped along by a boisterous and inventive score by Carter Burwell. The use of silent film in turn deftly plays to the film’s theme of deafness, with two characters isolated from society by their disability. It’s exciting, too, that character informs the style of the film, which shows how resourceful and sensitive Haynes is as a filmmaker.
But, even from the outset, there are niggles. Brian Selznick’s screenplay jars with Haynes’s economical, intelligent style: the dialogue feels contrived, the characters only minimally sketched, and there is an oddly corny, sentimental flavour to the movie that doesn’t sit well. This is the sort of film in which, when a character reads something, they don’t just read it, but they read it out loud all on their own while running a finger over the words.
This spirit clashes with Haynes’s eye, his rigour, his technical adroitness: it’s an almighty tussle, with Haynes’s proficient filmmaking winning out in the early stages, but Selznick’s wide-eyed, cornpone wonder begins to dominate from the midpoint, and from that stage Haynes knows he’s a dead man. He has one last, valiant fightback in round 8, in which he beautifully uses figurines to tell a lot of gloopy backstory contained in Selznick’s heavy-handed screenplay: this is a sweet call-back to Haynes’s early work on Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, and it shows his delicacy, his irony, his economy of means. But Selznick has him on the backfoot and he knows it, and in the last few rounds he’s barely putting up a fight: the last scenes of the movie play out as a sort of beatific, molasses-heavy reflection on friendship, with barely a directorial flourish to trouble the sincerity. In the final scene, the main characters all look up into the starry sky, clunkingly calling back to the film’s opening scene in which Ben ponders Wilde’s line about being in the gutter but looking up at the stars. This is so jarring, so heavy, so banal, so stupid above all. No-one in Wonderstruck elucidates the meaning of Wilde’s dictum, but it is used as shorthand for this creaky, strangely humourless film’s obsession with the theme of wonder. Wilde, who used his wit to subvert well-meaning society by slyly attacking it in the guise of jokes, would have roared at this sorry mess that constantly states its earnest intentions.
What has happened to Haynes? He hasn’t written a film since I’m Not There, ten years ago. This means that, although his work is still masterful—Carol barely puts a foot wrong—he is at the mercy of the screenplays he is working with. He also seems to be working with less rawness than he used to. In his early work, including stately films like Far From Heaven, there was always some sort of tear, some shock, something to rip up the fabric of the world his films were set in. Carol, for all its brilliance, was a prisoner of its pristine style, with hardly any punky anger or dirty sexuality coming to disturb the quality of the arrangement. In Wonderstruck, there is also a curious lack of guts, of rage, of filth or sexuality or subversion: Haynes is trapped by his collaborator. He needs to find his own words again.