More left-field genius from Wes Anderson: now with added Bruce Willis...
Wes Anderson’s movies take place in their own weird, dysfunctional environments, slightly distanced from the modern world. A prep school, for instance, or a New York brownstone mansion, a submarine a luxury train car rattling across India or an entire landscape conjured up from felt and fabric. For Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson creates an entire island – New Penzance – a semi-rural habitat with no paved roads, connected to mainland America only by a ferry that runs “twice a day from Stone Cove”.
The events in Moonrise Kingdom take place on New Penzance in September, 1965 – but apart from a handful of references to Francois Hardy, there’s little acknowledgment that the modern world exists beyond its shores. It may as well be 1955, or even 1945; the Sixties have clearly swung by elsewhere. This is the kind of distinct, secret universe featured in the fantasy novels cherished by one of the film’s main characters.
At first, Anderson’s New Penzance seems an entirely wholesome, apple pie version of America. The island’s spacious and elegant houses have names like Summer’s End. Law and order is maintained by a kindly sheriff, a scout master fastidiously drills his troops at camp. Families gather at the local church to enjoy an amateur production of Benjamin Britten’s opera Noye’s Fludde. Then – “Jiminy Cricket! He flew the coop!” – Scout Master Ward discovers one of his Khaki Scouts of North America is missing. It seems, too, that there has been another disappearance – that of a 12 year-old girl.
Child actors are of a particularly high standard these days – anyone who’s been watching Game Of Thrones will have spotted that the excellent work done by Maisie Williams and Isaac Hempstead-Wright as Arya and Bran Stark, is every bit the equal of their professional elders. Certainly, some of the best scenes in Moonrise Kingdom are those that focus on the two missing children – Sam (Jared Gillman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward). Sam has “exceptional wilderness skills” and he leads Suzy across New Penzance’s ‘old Chickchaw harvest migration trail’ towards map reference Mile 3.25 Tidal Inlet, a cove that becomes their own secret, magical Moonrise Kingdom.
Here is another recurring Anderson theme – dysfunctional families. We learn that Sam and Suzy have their own set of domestic dramas. He is an orphan, while her parents read books with titles like Coping With A Very Troubled Child. Together, Sam and Suzy dance together to Francois Hardy on the beach at sunset and declare their love for one another.
Despite Anderson’s usual arch manner, this childhood reverie is persuasive and heartfelt. Meanwhile, the grown-ups fall apart as the crisis surrounding the missing children grows – cracks in the marriage of Suzy’s parents, played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, become more pronounced. Ed Norton’s Scout Master Ward is stripped of his rank. Intending to take Sam into care, Social Services’ Tilda Swinton arrives from the mainland – a mutual foe the adults rally against.
With such a high profile adult cast – throw in extended cameos from Harvey Keitel and Jason Schwartzman and Bob Balaban as the film’s narrator – it’s perhaps inevitable some of them feel underused. McDormand, particularly, doesn’t really get to do much apart from shout into a megaphone. Norton is great as the well-intentioned but slightly pompous scout master, just about retaining his dignity as he purposefully strides round New Penzance with his socks yanked up to his knees. Bill Murray is predictably brilliant playing Bill Murray.
Bruce Willis, as Captain Sharp, the island’s police officer, might just be the best thing in the film – with his horn-rimmed glasses and bald patch, he’s a lonely, disheartened figure in late middle age living alone in a caravan. It’s a great piece of against-type casting, though come the film’s climax it’s Willis who gets the action hero moment.
As you’d expect, Moonrise Kingdom looks fantastic: the colour palette and composition of every shot is exquisite. The opening sequence, inside Suzy’s home, is one of Anderson’s best, the camera tracking round the rooms, pulling back through doorways, swooping down through windows. It’s another sealed-off world-within-a-world for Anderson to play around in.
Rating: 8 / 10
OPENS MAY 25 // CERT 12A