Wes Anderson has said that the youthful romance which propels his latest film, Moonrise Kingdom, is both personal and not. It’s an evocation of what he wished he’d had, but never did, when he was young; something most viewers will find an easily relatable topic.
Anderson’s first live action film since 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited stars Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward (both newcomers) as Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop, disenfranchised 12-year-old runaways who fall in love on the road together. He’s escaped from the Khaki Scouts, a wilderness survival troupe lead by a scout master (Ed Norton) who sports a wonderfully droll pair of shorts, and she from her dysfunctional lighthouse home, where her parents – played by Anderson regular Bill Murray and Frances McDormand – sleep in separate beds and wonder what might have been.
Suzy’s mother, it transpires, is having an affair with the local sheriff, a tired-looking Bruce Willis (this is a compliment), whose job it is to lead the search for the missing children. Also on the trail are the scouts, Suzy’s parents and, later on, Social Services, played by Tilda Swinton, decked out in an outrageous blue suit.
Everything exists in Wes Anderson’s world. The setting (a fictional, picturesque island called New Penzance) may be different to his other films, but this is familiar territory in many ways, from the delicately composed shots to the familiar, slightly arch, slightly off-kilter dialogue. At times it looks like a story book, or a painting, and the sets often appear to be models. As is often the case with Anderson’s films, it will occasionally require you to simply go along with it, as in the instance when the narrator – heretofore without direct connection to the narrative – steps gingerly into shot to tell the bickering search party where to go.
After Sam and Suzy get shot of the town and head out into the woods together, their interactions are a joy to behold. The two young, inexperienced leads do a great job in these scenes, building a believable (if purposefully quirky) relationship, while Anderson’s ensemble cast wander around looking for them. There is a clever scene in which recitals of Sam and Suzy’s letters to each other are overlapped in flashback, pointedly leaving out the most important, and perhaps poignant, snippets. Similarly, at the end, there is a touching shot of one of Sam’s paintings.
Unfortunately, the film’s final third fails to really build on what has come before; when the story takes an underwhelming turn, it loses some of the focus on the central relationship. There is the sense of a missed opportunity, because by this point we like the characters enough to want to get more out of them. The film isn’t aiming for high drama, of course, but there’s a distance created by the film’s tone that presupposes the more emotive response that might still have been achieved with a stronger conclusion. I f the deadpan sensibility of the film ultimately leaves it feeling a tad lightweight, that isn’t to say that Moonrise Kingdom isn’t a funny, witty and well-crafted film.