Moonrise Kingdom is the best Wes Anderson can get—profound, funny and supercilious, all at the same time. Few directors today have a stamp as distinctive as Anderson’s. Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr Fox and now Moonrise Kingdom—these films have a staged coolness, and yet they work because of their strong emotional centre.
The drivers of The Royal Tenenbaums, led by a fantastic cast including Gene Hackman and Anjelica Huston, were the family’s derangement and each person’s loneliness, which Anderson defined in crisp detail. The relationship between the family’s adopted daughter, the prodigious playwright Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), and the melancholic son Richie (Luke Wilson), a gifted tennis player, was its doom, and also, strangely, the film’s redemptive track. As a love story, its tragedy is unforgettable.
In mise en scène, Moonrise Kingdom has striking similarities with The Royal Tenenbaums although the two films are vastly different. Like Margot, little Suzy (Kara Hayward), the heroine of Moonrise Kingdom, has a penchant for heavy make-up and France, the country, and is constantly uneasy with her present. Both are literary, dreamy and free-willed, wanting escape. Anderson opens the film with a camera in smooth, linear motion recording Suzy’s home, where she lives with her three brothers and parents. Reminiscent of the detailed art direction in the Tenenbaum abode, this home, called Summer’s End, is also like a doll’s house littered with strange objets d’art, a world shut off, or one which exists on another planet.
Although the deadpan humour will be familiar to his fans, and the scintillating music by Alexandre Desplat will take them back to other evocative worlds created by him, with Moonrise Kingdom Anderson reveals a spiritual appreciation of
the meeting of young, kindred minds rejected by the established order—in this case, a scouts camp, and smug, middle-class American families.
The film is set in the 1960s, on an island off the coast of New England called New Penzance. Here Suzy lives in Summer’s End with her father, played by Bill Murray, who sips wine out of a bottle while chopping trees just for the heck of it, a dazed mother, played by Frances McDormand, and three brothers. The parents, both lawyers, address each other as “counsellor” and sleep on separate beds next to each other. The boys listen constantly to a record and the classical notes gently reverberate as the camera scans the house’s matchbox-like structure. Suzy is a reader, a very serious one, and she looks out into the open fields that their home overlooks with a pair of binoculars like an eagle scanning her territory before swooping. The parents are uninterested, lonely, their love is lost, but they stick together. “We are all they have,” the mother says, sprawled on her bed, staring at the ceiling. To which her sunken-eyed husband responds, “That’s not enough”, also on his bed, staring blankly at the ceiling. Anderson’s camera is on the ceiling, looking down on this acutely revealing existentialist moment.
On another part of the island is Camp Ivanhoe, steered by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton). The boys in the rigorously run camp ridicule and bully its most idiosyncratic member, Sam (Jared Gilman), who wears headgear with a furry tail, an oversized pair of spectacles and carries his map everywhere—an accomplished scout nerd. An orphan, his foster parents ask him not to return while he is at Camp Ivanhoe; Sam finds sympathizers in Ward and, more realistically, in Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the policeman on duty—another lonely, loveless islander. Tilda Swinton, an apparition in electric blue, is Social Services, who wants to take Sam into state custody. Anderson treats her, quite deliciously, like an icy Star Wars alien.
Sam and Suzy meet in the green room of a theatre where Suzy is dressing up to play the Eagle in the opera Noye’s Fludde by Benjamin Britten. They instantly recognize each other, and look deep into each other. The friendship develops through letters written in staccato sentences and jagged handwriting, hilarious to the listener; they conspire to escape into the wild.
Will they find their kingdom? Anderson’s answer is philosophical but entrenched in reality, although the film has many episodes that make it look like panels from a fantastical fairy-tale comic book. The children are in paradise; Sam pierces Suzy’s ears and blood trickles down her ears, for a beetle earring he has made for her. “How are we ever going to take that thing off your ears?” Suzy’s mother says, indicating that it is a permanent fixture. Anderson portrays young love as innocent and dogged.
The performances are stellar, with Gilman and Hayward doing the most memorable acts. Murray, McDormand, Norton and Willis are meant to portray wounded, cynical people hovering around this deadpan but ecstatic young couple. The adults make the children, the visionaries in the film, look resplendent.
Through the wilderness, the domestic funk and precocious childhood, Moonrise Kingdom has a humour that keeps it amazingly light. Anderson may not be a director you can instantly warm up to, but for anyone familiar with his work, Moonrise Kingdom is an absolute treat.
Moonrise Kingdom releases in theatres on Friday.