Woody Allen’s latest offering, the tragi-comic ‘Wonder Wheel’ is set in 1950s Coney Island, the Brooklyn seafront neighbourhood famed for its fairgrounds, dominated by the titular Ferris wheel. It was previously used by Allen as a location for some memorable scenes in ‘Annie Hall’ and more extensively in ‘Radio Days’. Coney Island as we see it here, rich in period detail, is a place of vibrant colours but faded glory, a fitting environment for the protagonist, clam house waitress Ginny (Kate Winslet), to contemplate her unfulfilled dreams as she approaches forty.
We’re introduced to Ginny by narrator Mickey (Justin Timberlake), who works as a lifeguard to pay his way through his master’s degree, with ambitions of becoming a dramatist and poet. Mickey reveals from the start that he “relishes melodrama and larger than life characters”, so he is immediately drawn to failed actress Ginny, with whom he discusses her potential fatal flaw before embarking on an affair with her.
Ginny lives a frustrated existence with her carousel operator husband Humpty (James Belushi) who’s attempting to stay on the wagon, while she sips from a whisky bottle hidden under the kitchen sink. Their cramped apartment, which backs almost directly on to the Wonder Wheel and “used to house a freak show”, is also shared with Ginny’s pyromaniac young son from her first marriage Richie (Jack Gore). The kid might go entirely ignored were it not for him starting fires and skipping school for the cinema.
Enter Carolina (Juno Temple in fine form), Humpty’s twenty-six year old daughter, whom he disowned six years ago when she married into the mob. Now on the run from her gangster husband, she needs a place to hideout and moves in despite Ginny’s protestations.
Although Ginny is no longer a professional actress, her flair for the dramatic has clearly never left her. She tells Mickey that she isn’t merely a waitress, but views her job as a kind of acting role, which is perhaps the same way she approaches being a wife, mother and now adulterer. We see her practising the lines she’s going to say to Mickey, putting on clothes for him as if they’re costumes and there’s a degree of performance when she speaks to him. Kate Winslet is by turns hilarious and heart-breaking in the role, delivering one of the finest performances of her career, worthy of an eighth Oscar nomination.
Following their collaboration on last year’s ‘Café Society’, Allen is reunited with Vittorio Storaro, the Oscar winning cinematographer of ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘The Last Emperor’. Storaro’s work is one of the real stars of the film, with beautifully composed shots filled with saturated colours and Winlset’s hair lighting up the screen like a flame.
‘Wonder Wheel’ closes the 55th New York Film Festival and is on limited release in US cinemas from 1st December, Allen’s 82nd birthday.