In our private universe: Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom

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The rise of digital technology in cinema has been a decidedly mixed blessing, and not only due to the concurrent impending demise of celluloid film which it has ushered in. On one hand, it’s become much cheaper and easier to make a film. And on the other…it’s become much cheaper and easier to make a film. Which, when it means that you consequently don’t put much effort into realising the visual element of your chosen visual artform (and that often is the case), is a problem for me.

So in an age when, in much of both Hollywood and low-budget independent filmmaking, incessant shallow focus is wrongly considered inherently ‘cinematic’, facial closeups predominate despite being unsuited to the near-ubiquitous 2.35:1 frame, and many people’s idea of direction is to shoot everything (shakily) handheld, I thank God for people like Wes Anderson who actually care about how their film looks. Among the many things I like about Moonrise Kingdom, his new film which recently opened the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, probably my very favourite is its image quality – shot on 16mm film with a beautiful soft grain, it’s the perfect medium to display the rich pastels of Anderson’s ever-meticulous production design, not to mention the warm natural light of Rhode Island, doubling for the fictional isle of New Penzance.

Its setting on an island, in the past (1965), amusingly literalises the film’s typically Andersonian feeling of somehow existing within a hermetically sealed universe quite unlike the one ‘real’ people inhabit. Some people find that quality irksome; probably just as many, and I’m one of them, love it. Likewise, those who can no longer empathise with their inner emotional adolescent, which Anderson’s protagonists, of whatever physical age, always remain at heart, will never find his characters to be anything more than self-indulgent whiners; but at least this time his leads have the excuse of actually being 12-year-olds. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward winningly play Sam and Suzy, who run away together into the woods of New Penzance after falling in love following a meeting at a school play a year earlier.

That description suggests a couple of possible voices the film could have adopted – either horribly saccharine if played straight, or else satirically playing up the cutesiness for all it’s worth. It’s undeniable that the film does have the archness that was probably essential to fend off the lurking tweeness in that setup (and no-one could ever accuse Anderson of a lack of self-awareness, whatever his subject), but he manages to strike some astute balances in his handling of tone. Sam is on the island as part of his scout troop’s annual summer camp, but despite being thin, bespectacled and “by some distance the least popular scout in the troop”, as Ed Norton’s Scoutmaster Ward puts it, is also an excellent woodsman who has all the survival skills necessary to keep the couple safe. There is a believable precociousness to the kids that merges well with the expectedly less-than-perfectly-competent adults searching for them, who in some nice casting against type include both Norton’s self-doubting Ward and Bruce Willis’s Captain Sharp, a small-time policeman bruised by life’s disappointments. In fact, it’s no coincidence that as the one outright villain of the piece, Tilda Swinton’s Social Services – only ever referred to as such even by herself – is chiefly characterised by her ruthless, unfeeling efficiency.

The one aspect of the film that Anderson does perhaps struggle with is in conveying the emotional intensity of Sam and Suzy’s relationship, which he has stated in interviews is inspired by his own memories of falling impossibly deeply in love at that age. The meticulousness of his mise-en-scene, the incredible power of observation evident in the immense detail of the universes he creates, is an awkward fit for the feeling of being so under the spell of another person that the rest of the world is lost to you, notwithstanding the fact that one of the ways these characters demonstrate this separation is precisely in their own act of world-building – the renaming of the bay where they make camp to ‘Moonrise Kingdom’, their private realm no-one else can enter. Nevertheless, they are a believable enough couple to carry the film, which crucially always remains emotionally relatable in a way that, for instance, Anderson’s The Life Aquatic from 2004 is not (there I would have to concur with critics that the characters remain too closed off from the viewer). The subdued ending, gently hinting at an undermining of the predominant mood, is a great piece of writing and direction.

The revelling in artificiality of Anderson’s previous work, with its postmodern hyperawareness of its status as a ‘story’ rather than presenting some attempt at verisimilitude (think of The Royal Tenenbaums‘ presentation as a novel borrowed from a library, with omniscient narration by Alec Baldwin), is very much in evidence here also, courtesy of a nameless onscreen narrator played by Bob Balaban, who occupies an at first uncertain hinterland between exegesis and diegesis before his true function is made clear. Added to this unabashed storytelling device is a new use of music as a structuring principle also – while Hank Williams soundtracks every appearance of the melancholy Captain Sharp, Benjamin Britten, who wrote much music specifically for children, and is also period-appropriate, is heavily featured in scenes with the leads and other child characters; his opera for amateurs, ‘Noye’s Fludde’, which has, shall we say, some narrative relevance to the later events of Moonrise Kingdom (as the narrator reveals very early on), is actually performed onscreen.

All in all then, the film’s Andersonness is absolute. Which, if ever there was one, is a theoretically neutral statement that will provoke extremely polarised opinions. Despite what devotees and detractors both would sometimes appear to believe, it is possible to find degrees of nuance in evaluating individual Wes Anderson films, to think that one is better or worse than another despite them all being of a piece in many ways, and if not for the fact that I haven’t seen them all yet I would expect to be saying that this is his most satisfying film since Tenenbaums 11 years ago. I find it interesting how intensely Anderson gets criticised for repeating his visual style and returning to the same types of characters and stories over and over – in other words, doing as most good artists do. After all, even Stanley Kubrick, who of all great directors arguably moved the most freely between genres, displayed a consistent worldview throughout his career. I suppose it’s the insularity of Anderson’s work that provokes calls for him especially, over other filmmakers, to stretch himself, move out of his comfort zone; but no-one could sensibly accuse him of being lazy or half-hearted in executing his ideas, and his unwillingness to make an obvious grand artistic statement is to my mind the exact opposite of the supposed pretentiousness often ascribed to him in kneejerk fashion by those who just dislike his aesthetic.

As I write this, Moonrise is doing great business on limited release in America, with the highest ever per-screen average for an opening weekend of a live-action film, and pretty decently here in the UK too. I’m no monarchist so, after all the hype of a certain jubilee, it’s refreshing to find one Kingdom whose ruler I’m happy to see reign for some time yet.

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