Review: A WRINKLE IN TIME, A Mystery, A Puzzle, A Diverse Adventure
Storm Reid leads a cast that includes Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Chris Pine; Ava DuVernay directed.
Admirably ambitious, Ava DuVernay's adaptation of a beloved literary classic gently yet firmly asserts its independence from expectations.
First published in 1962, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time won a Newbery Medal and other awards. Its popularity with children has endured over the decades, as it's remained continuously in print, selling millions of copies worldwide. (When I worked at a used book store a few years ago, it was the #1 most requested title for young people.) The novel is a beautifully written tale that is told with building suspense, and is quite moving.
The film's initial setup is very similar to the novel. Young Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is having trouble at school. Her father (Chris Pine), a scientist, mysteriously disappeared four years before, leaving behind his wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a fellow scientist, and 6-year-old Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), a precocious, brilliant child. None of them has given up hope, but Meg, who's 12 or 13, is acting out, starting to manifest the strong feelings she's previously kept to herself.
One night, a woman suddenly appears in the Murry family home. Calling herself Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), she's evidently been visiting with Charles Wallace; the unexpected visit simply befuddles Meg and her mother. In the meantime, Meg has made the acquaintance of schoolmate Calvin (Levi Miller), who walks home from school with her and Charles Wallace the next day.
They meet the equally mysterious Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who only speaks in quotations from legendary figures and writings, and then Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), and soon they are off on a grand adventure. Jennifer Lee (Frozen and other animated Disney films) and Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terabithia) are credited for the screenplay, which moves the family's home from a more rural location to urban Los Angeles, drops twin brothers from the family and makes other fairly inconsequential changes.
The more radical departure from the source material, however, comes in the (perhaps necessary) decision to focus on elaborate, visually arresting sequences as a substitute for the simple clarity of the written word. Films are not books, after all, and we all know that "show, don't tell" is one of the maxims of the industry.
On the big screen, however, Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace are often lost and/or minimized by the visual effects that surround them. In a video that played before the advance screening I attended, director DuVernay said that, as opposed to her strikingly dramatic previous films Selma and 13th, she wanted to make a 'positive' film, so perhaps that explains why Meg's 'negative' emotions -- anger, hurt, resentment -- are softened, which weakens the impact of certain decisions that are made by her and other characters.
The young performers do their best, and Meg remains a likable lead, even as the plot itself becomes difficult to follow, something that I would never have imagined from reading the novel. Granted, it's a fantasy, set in fantastical settings, and narrative coherence doesn't necessarily need to be a priority in such films, as long as other compensations abound.
In this case, the wondrous diversity in front of and behind the camera may be sufficient to override any reservations about the film itself. Arriving more than half a century after its source material, A Wrinkle in Time may finally be a film for its time.
The film opens in some countries on March 8, in North America and other parts of the world on March 9, and elsewhere in the following weeks.