Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s long-awaited new film, offers us an uncommonly expansive view of a New England island community, but it begins in a country house that is isolated and cut-off from the outside world in every sense. Anderson’s camera, determinedly stocked with Super 16mm film in a pervasively digital age, whisks us on a dolly track through the cavernous environs of the Bishop family’s coastal home, precisely focusing on the action taking place in each family member’s room. The attention to detail and witty pictorial composition brings to mind the interior of Carl Fredricksen home in Pixar’s Up – every little trinket, fastidiously shelved book and window-ledge accoutrement positioned to a telling and resonant effect. We’re being carefully introduced to a uniquely cinematic world – in other words, an environment that is both solely generated and subsequently sustained on by cinema’s capacity for imagination.
In accordance with how we, the cinema audience, seek escapism and grandeur from our entertainment, the island’s children are also incessantly striving for some kind of imaginative liberation to their white picket fence-lined suburban ennui. Ignoring their mother’s (Frances McDormand) hopeless, loudspeaker-aided calls to have dinner, Susie (Kara Hayward) lounges on a settee just below a wide window devouring a children’s fantasy novel, while her three identically sized little brothers, in hilarious contrast to how most young boys are portrayed in mainstream films, are seriously listening in a precociously chin-stroking manner to a vinyl LP of Benjamin Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. This is a highly affecting sequence, cognizant of the dull pain that can often accompany the monotony of family routine, and a reminder that children on film are rarely afforded such a contemplative moment; of course, I was no aficionado of high culture as a child, but I also had a similar cassette recording of a Beethoven orchestral guide for children that I listened to with rapt attention on many car journeys.
Wes Anderson’s obsessively crafted films can be a singular annoyance for many film fans, yet the personal love and intelligently realised direction finds as many passionate devotees as detractors. It’s the price paid for commanding such a complete aesthetic – it’s a unique, enticing world, but not necessarily one into which everyone is compelled to venture. The first Wes Anderson film I saw was The Darjeeling Limited in late 2007 – a late introduction, some might say. Darjeeling has much to recommend on both a surface and formal level, but I felt held at elbow’s length, and slightly baffled by the detached, ever-self-conscious character portrayals, with Jason Schwartzman and his self-appointed role as the brothers’ iPod dock DJ the worst offender.
The turnaround was as so: catching up with Rushmore a couple of months later was one of those oft-cheesily-stated revelatory film moments that dry up the more cinema you’re exposed to, and possibly the more jaded you might become. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit how much I identified with it, but how could I not? It’s a hysterical anti-coming-of-age tale about Max Fischer (Schwartzman again, but here fantastic), a hubristically ambitious, yet academically under-achieving private schooler, beset with a swooning crush on the new kindergarten teacher, whom he’ll pursue at all costs.
Arguably Anderson might’ve recorded a few stumbles since then: The Royal Tenenbaums was a brilliant, yet slightly more cynical and mechanical follow-up, swiftly followed by the missteps The Life Aquatic and Darjeeling, making even his most ardent admirers question the reserves of his talent. But with their comparatively high critical praise, and salutatory recent film festival premieres, the stop-motion Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr. Fox and now Moonrise Kingdom have returned him to something approaching the vanguard of international auteurs. It’s hard to imagine Anderson’s output of a few years ago raising the curtain to such a high-prestige event as the Cannes Film Festival, or slotting in so naturally in the official competition amongst the likes of Haneke, Kiarostami, Resnais and Reygadas.
Moonrise Kingdom takes place on an island off the coast of New England, following Sam (Jared Gilman) and Susie’s happy transformation from isolated, gawky pre-teen misfits into pocket-sized versions of the romantic runaways seen in Pierrot le Fou and Badlands, proceeding to whip the locale’s insular community into disarray and panic. Gamely dressed in what must be accurate New England coastal attire, the narrator Bob Balaban informs us that a storm’s a comin’ – one of the most devastating and infamous the area suffers in that time, even. And as has been overstated in the early critiques of this film, its capricious, elegantly simple narrative could have been adapted from any one of the stolen plastic-laminated fantasy story books Susie travels with in her satchel; indeed, what is a tale of youth in peril if nature doesn’t show its antagonism? We could even imagine Anderson’s back catalogue as a small compartment in a public library that’s seen better days, a thick wad of dog-eared paperbacks promising witty, time-worn adventures, resembling in tone and spirit some fantasised hybrid of Enid Blyton and Hergé.
The film has a peculiar emotional register, and it is vital to emphasise how it constantly interrogates and undercuts its restless tendency for raw, uncomfortable sentiment. For example, the scout search party to recover Sam and Susie is choreographed like something from an unconventionally prim war re-enactment society. At a point where Anderson might decide to lay bare in an unblemished manner of younger children’s potential for violence, he prefers to provocatively dangle the handle of workbench scissors centrally in the frame, ironising its handling here as a dangerous weapon. And in an injection of surprising bitterness, the development of the main narrative thread is continuously intercut with process-bound representations of the main pair’s secret letters being written in crude shorthand, with unflattering close-ups of hastily scribbled handwriting. Sincere, heartfelt emotion is in enduring conflict here with the cerebral demands of process, protocol and the distancing gauze of Anderson’s trademark stylisation; this thematic idea finds its characterisation in Tilda Swinton’s merciless social services delegate, who threatens with disturbing suggestions of institutionalisation and shock-convulsive therapy.
One wonders that if Balaban hadn’t announced the year of 1965 in his opening narration, would we actually be able to locate this curious snow-globe world in any real timeframe? This is also challenged by the resistance of all of Anderson’s films to associate with any cemented era in modern American history, as if together they operate in their own disconnected universe impervious to the passage of time (look at how Bill Murray’s various characters tend to blend into and reframe one another). But one of the most important successes of Moonrise Kingdom is how it uses this new sense of a fully represented era for allegorical effect: the fugitive lovers’ escape is like a clarion call of the new emerging movement of youth counter-culture, the baby-boomers with the prerogative and confidence to remake America as their own liberated domain, toppling down the conservatism, paternalism and conformity of their parents’ old values. Murray, Willis and Swinton’s characters could even be seen as symbolising the dominant institutions of the judiciary, the law-enforcement and the civil service run amok, and desperately struggling to control and contain the early movements of this revolution. Anderson is brilliant at concentrating whole constellations of ideas like these; in the Moonrise Kingdom sanctuary they lovingly devise at the film’s midpoint, Susie decorates her hair with daisies, and this highly charged symbol forces our minds to tie everything he is saying in this film together. The spirit of the 60s is alive in these kids.