Moonrise Kingdom

September 8, 2012
Screen Shot 2012-09-25 at 3.34.04 PM

Wes Anderson’s films are so doggedly idiosyncratic they will always leave a certain part of his audience feeling stranded. For the rest of us, they are one of the abiding delights of contemporary cinema. Mooonrise Kingdom is Anderson’s seventh feature, so by now you probably know whether you are a fan or not.

One of the hallmarks of Anderson’s style is a love of static, symmetrical shots that make three-dimensional sets look like cardboard cutouts. This is abetted by a colour sense that is rarely less than dazzling. Even the actors in his movies sound like they are reading their lines from an autocue. And what actors! The cast for this film includes Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel and Jason Schwartzman, all playing roles that could be straight out of a Christmas pantomime.

The overall effect is mannered but surprisingly engaging. Anderson treats film as an enchanted realm that bears a vague resemblance to real life but remains a fairy tale for grown-ups. There is sex, death and violence, but without consequences.

We are invited to view the adult world through the eyes of a child. Characters’ motivations are always transparent and straightforward, their personalities completely consistent. We never doubt for a second that any problems and setbacks will be overcome.

Anderson appears to approach a story with a handful of ideas and motifs, then just make it up as he goes along. In Moonrise Kingdom we witness the romance of two twelve-year-old runaways, Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bshop, who head for the wilderness, with search parties trailing behind.

As the entire action takes place on the small, fictional island of New Penzance, in 1965, we know that the fugitives can’t go very far. Sam has left his scout troop, Suzy her parents and younger brothers. He brings his outdoor camping skills; she has a portable record player, a Francoise Hardy LP, and a collection of adventure stories with teenage girl heroines.

One of the leitmotifs of this movie is the music of Benjamin Britten. The story begins with Suzy’s brothers listening to the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and Sam first catches sight of Suzy, dressed as a raven, during a performance of Noye’s Fludde at the local church. No modern composer was more enamoured with children’s choruses than Britten, and he is oddly appropriate for a film in which the kids are more mature than the adults. The animal costumes and island setting have echoes of Robin Hardy’s classic film, The Wicker Man (1973) although with less sinister consequences.

Although Moonrise Kingdom is full of big names, the plaudits belong to the two young leads – Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, who provide us with sober, rational conversations. Edward Norton, as Scout Master, Randy West, is struggling to keep his troop from deserting. Bruce Willis is the “sad, dumb” island policeman, Captain Sharp, who has been having a low-key affair with Suzy’s mother, Laura Bishop (Frances McDormand). Both Laura and her husband, Walt (Bill Murray), are lawyers, who seem mildly deranged. She walks around shouting through a megaphone, he goes looking for a tree to chop down. Tilda Swinton, as the representative of Social Services, wears a uniform that makes her look like an air hostess.

Sam and Suzy’s relationship is a methodical business in which families, personalities, and even French kissing, are discussed as if they were scientific propositions. Although both have been classified as “disturbed children”, they are perfectly calm when left to themselves. In the world of this film we begin to feel there is no reason why twelve-year-olds shouldn’t determine their own lives, and even get married. This is, of course, the way all twelve-year-olds feel when confronted with the frustrating rules and restrictions imposed on them by adults.

The title, Moonrise Kingdom, does not simply refer to the camp that Sam and Suzy set up by the beach, it conjures up that liminal state between childhood and adulthood. The sun has set on childish innocence and the moon of fullblown adult lunacy is rising. The couple’s ‘kingdom’ consists of one small piece of earth experienced for a brief, idyllic interval, away from the dictates of society. It is a glimpse of pure freedom before they are conscripted into the grown-up world.

While it is possible to read all this into the film upon reflection, sitting in the cinema we are caught up in the moment, absorbed in the twists of this improbable tale. One can’t help feeling that the evolution of the story was no less predictable for the director and the cast than it is for the audience. In the best fairy tale tradition we follow Sam and Suzy into the woods, with Anderson and his crew, and all get lost together.

Moonrise Kingdom, USA, rated PG, 94 mins

Published by the Australian Financial Review, September 08, 2012

 

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