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Review: Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson is out in the open and back on form, writes Ryan Gilbey.

No evolutionary timeline is necessary to illustrate the career of Wes Anderson. His sensibility (bittersweet, archaic) and visual style (fastidious, enamoured with tableaux and cross- sections) are unusual in being intact from his earliest films, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore. His heroes have always been romantic misfits with OCD tendencies and absent or unreliable parents; his outlook steeped in hipster chic. Even Fantastic Mr Fox, a stop-motion animation adapted from the book by Roald Dahl, could not evict the director from his comfort zone, a genre we might call “melanchomedy”.

The only thing more repetitious than the films is the critic who complains about how repetitious they are. Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s seventh picture, bears his unmistakable imprint, from the candy-coloured production design to the off-the-beaten-soundtrack (lashings of Britten, a soupçon of Françoise Hardy). But it is literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air, benefiting from the director’s decision to get out of the house (The Royal Tenenbaums), or off the boat (The Life Aquatic) or train (The Darjeeling Limited). The great outdoors doesn’t adhere to storyboards; mist suspended over a field won’t respond to direction.

On an island off the coast of New England in 1965, an orphaned Boy Scout, Sam Shakusksy (Jared Gilman), falls into an amorous fascination with Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) after stumbling upon her in a church production of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde. They make a pact to run away. Being only 12 years old, there are adults at their heels – Suzy’s weary parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), a defeated sheriff (Bruce Willis) and a twitchy scout master (Edward Norton). Sam’s flight enables an escape-movie gag too glorious to spoil here, not least because it represents an uncommon burst of outright comedy in a film teetering on the verge of being amusing. Moonrise Kingdom is laugh-inside funny; it’s smile-a-minute stuff.

Among the adult performers, it is Bob Balaban, as the narrator, who is the closest thing to a comic marvel; his skew-whiff posture alone is a visual punchline. But there is a fatigued quality to the adult cast members that goes beyond their characters’ mid-life funk. The children, on the other hand, prove that inexperience can be liberating. As Sam, Gilman offers an endless supply of quizzical reactions and chewy line-readings. His tortoise-like appearance clashes nicely with his hare-like mania: no romantic ever put this much map-making and schedule-writing into the business of eloping. Suzy seems baffled as well as bowled over by him, despite being no less eccentric. (She never goes anywhere without binoculars, showing her emotional estrangement.) Hayward’s face is a picture of poise and wisdom that makes natural her transformation into a temporary Wendy, with Sam and fellow scouts her adoring Lost Boys.

The geek-meets-freak romance is no more convincing than it was in Submarine, 2010’s British cover version of Anderson’s work, but I don’t think it’s meant to be. Moonrise Kingdom is more about imagination than love and how the marginalised find sanctuary there. Repeatedly the film conjures visual representations of its young heroes’ turbulent thoughts. A child somersaults on a trampoline while Sam and Suzy contemplate marriage; the sky is lit by fireworks and shaken by a violent storm; an intricate treehouse wobbles at the top of a pole taller than a redwood; Sam’s mental state after being rejected by his foster parents is mirrored in the close-up of an ocean map where unmoored co-ordinates drift disconsolately in blue space.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Bell Jar, with their nightmare visions of electro-convulsive therapy, were published several years before the action of Moonrise Kingdom takes place, which puts into context the adults’ fears that Sam will have his individuality zapped out of him should he fall into the hands of social services. (There’s a harbinger of this when the lad takes a lightning bolt to the head, though it causes him nothing more severe than a cartoon-style blackened face.) It’s a pleasing coincidence that this director has shaken off some of his own inhibitions to make a film celebrating the boundless imagination. It’s a small but meticulous work; even when Anderson is doodling, he does it with a Montblanc pen.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide