Nestled amongst the neon lights and fairground noise that is Coney Island’s 1950s amusement park is a dysfunctional family waiting to implode in a dark romantic drama with clear connections to Woody Allen’s own murky love life.
In the film, Kate Winslet plays the miserable and volatile Ginny. Unhappily married to the alcoholic Humpty (Jim Belushi), she begins to imagine a greater life for herself when she falls for local lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake); but she finds herself entwined in a messed-up love story once her troubled step-daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), returns to seek refuge from murderous gang members and becomes Mickey’s newest love interest.
The most striking aspect of Wonder Wheel is the masterful manipulation of coloured lighting by accomplished cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, who envelops the actors of the film in beautiful golden light amidst waves of bold blue and striking red. Although the cinematography is, for the most part, quite stunning, at times it was incredibly distracting. A conversation between the two leading ladies, Ginny and Carolina, saw the pair bathed in red and then blue and then back to red, almost in sync with the rollercoaster of emotions Ginny was experiencing. It was a lot for the eyes to continually adjust to.Despite the predominantly rich cinematography there are severe, yet valid, criticisms of Wonder Wheel’s writing and characters. The stilted opening lay down the foundations of what I thought would be a pretty awful film. It was either the lines given to Jim Belushi for, or his portrayal of, the character Humpty—Ginny’s husband and Carolina’s father, an aggressive alcoholic who seemingly means well—that resulted in an incredibly forced performance, with enough proclamations of ‘Jesus’ to make a priest roll their eyes. In a film that often feels more like a stage play, some characters are quite limited in their construction—like the romantic life guard and wannabe-poet Mickey who fell quite, quite flat, despite the character’s potential. On an incredibly related side-note, the character Mickey and the twisted romantic arc of Wonder Wheel resembles that of Woody Allen’s own relationships. Specifically his affair with a presumed eighteen year-old while he was dating her mother, Mia Farrow, which is reflected in the film through the warped love triangle between Ginny, Mickey, and Carolina, Ginny’s step-daughter—much to the disgust of the audience members around me.This isn’t the first time Woody Allen has created a filmic version of his own life. Positive portrayals of relationships between older men and teenage girls, with the older man played by Allen himself or by someone representing him, are dispersed frequently throughout his extensive filmography. His overt romanticisation of relationships of this nature, especially illegal student-teacher ones, like the unhealthy relationship between 56-year-old teacher and 19-year-old student in Husbands and Wives (1992), or Manhattan (1979), in which Allen played a 43-year-old man dating a 17-year-old girl. In case you haven’t heard, his upcoming film, reportedly called A Rainy Day in New York, will also feature a sexual relationship between an adult man and a minor, this time involving a 44-year-old man and a 15-year-old girl. Many reviewers seem intent on ignoring Allen’s history of sexual abuse allegations by minors, his questionable relationships, and romanticisation of illegal or age-inappropriate relationships. But I don’t see why we should. Especially when he continues to shove them in our faces through his films in an almost arrogant, you-can’t-catch-me manner.
Despite the cringe-worthy and genuinely scary implications of the idealisation of these relationships I’m going to turn my attention to Kate Winslet’s astounding performance that truly deserves admiration. In a raw and powerful portrayal of the miserable and envious housewife Ginny, who works tirelessly to provide for her relatively ungrateful husband and fire-starting child Richie (Jack Gore), she absolutely carried this film. When Carolina begins to fancy Mickey, Ginny struggles to deter her advances, and this is when Winslet begins to truly shine. Through such powerful conviction Winslet provides complexity and honesty to a character that she herself claimed “profoundly irritated” her—as Ginny’s self-loathing and self-centred nature is one that makes her a tough character to empathise with, but an incredible one to watch.If you desire beautiful cinematography and the magnificent portrayal of a multi-layered female character then I suggest you watch out for Winslet in Wonder Wheel, but prepare yourself for a love triangle that is hard to watch.
Wonder Wheel is in cinemas now.