(directed by Wes Anderson, 2012)
It is summer 1965 and we are in the town of New Penzance, a remote, isolated New England community. Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) lives with her parents and three small brothers in a rambling red house which looks like an oversized dolls’ house, where she spends most of her time silently watching others through her omnipresent binoculars. Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), also twelve, is an orphan in a foster home and is spending the summer at a scout camp run by the earnest Randy Ward (Edward Norton). Both stigmatised as ‘problem children’, Suzy and Sam have been penpals for a year, after a chance meeting at a performance of Noye’s Fludde by Benjamin Britten. The attraction is immediate: finally each of them has someone who understands their inner turmoil. They decide – as you do – that they are in love, and plan to run away together.
They are a strange pair: Sam has reacted to his loneliness by teaching himself to be a thoroughly capable scout, never at a loss in the wilderness. Suzy has withdrawn into herself, her omnipresent makeup a sign of the mask she has assumed to protect her from the world. Well-provisioned with firelighters, rope and fishing tackle (Sam) and fantasy novels, binoculars and a cat (Suzy), they set off into the wild. Their timing is unfortunate – a fierce storm looms on the horizon – and the ensuing search, spearheaded by Randy Ward and his scout troop, forces the community’s disillusioned adults into some kind of cohesion. Alongside Norton, the excellent adult cast includes Bruce Willis (as Captain Sharp, the island’s chief of police), Frances McDormand and Bill Murray (as Suzy’s bickering, embittered parents) and Bob Balaban as the narrator, who pops up now and then like a Greek chorus. Tilda Swinton, despite her high billing, has little more than a cameo, as the blue-clad representative of the dystopian Social Services. The key thing, though, is that the younger actors are so good. Gilman is engagingly, geekily awkward, while Hayward’s grace and gravitas are very impressive. I am sure this won’t be the last we see of either of them.
As it’s such a stylised, mannered sort of film, I have to give special praise to the cinematography, which is beautiful. Scenes are framed into tableaux, such as the Bishop children clustered around their record player listening to Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Britten looms large here); or breakfast at the scout camp, where the boys string out along the table like some kind of Last Supper with woggles. The colour contrasts have been bumped up, so that certain scenes have an almost Technicolour punchiness to them. All this helps to strengthen the dreamlike, otherworldly quality of the film. The camera lingers on Hayward’s beautiful, slightly tragic face; she looks so much older than twelve that the effect is sometimes slightly disturbing (later in the film, when she dons a dashing beret, she looks like a young Faye Dunaway, in Bonnie and Clyde mode).
Although the characters are emotionally detached from us and from each other, the whole thing somehow seems to work: the mood of the film is half Swallows and Amazons and half Romeo and Juliet. Much of the film is infused with innocence: the isolated setting with its forests, coves and meadows is classic children’s adventure territory, and so is the contrast between detached, rather hapless adults and liberated, idealistic children who form their own destinies. The deliberate naivete of much of the story makes it all the more surprising when the scouts turn out to have a kind of Lord of the Flies savagery, tracking down their absconded comrade Sam with all the fervour and military precision of a Vietnam campaign to recover a rogue soldier. It’s implied that the children, with their sense of duty, honour and loyalty, are perhaps better at the grown-up things in life than the culpable, flawed adults.
I haven’t seen many of Wes Anderson’s films so I can’t really compare this to his other work, or identify aspects of the film which are his trademarks. All I can say is that I’ve seen The Royal Tenenbaums and – while I could appreciate its indie appeal – I never warmed to it. The characters in that film were just too dysfunctional, too caricatured, to elicit any sympathy. Moonrise Kingdom is a gentler, warmer-hearted film: it’s still odd, but that oddness is less barbed and more quirky than in The Royal Tenenbaums. Moreover, this final ends on a note of hope, suggesting that the adult characters might find ways to heal themselves and, in a surprisingly traditional message for Anderson, implying that true love really does conquer all.