In ‘Billy Elliot’, Stephen Daldry made a film about a boy who faced down reality to find self-fulfilment. The story had its tearjerking moments but earned its happy ending through toughness. Daldry’s sentimental streak broadened with ‘The Hours’ and ‘The Reader’, and now he’s made a film about a boy who, for understandable reasons, seeks to stave off reality, set in a world that, less understandably, colludes in the deception.
Adapted from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, ‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’ is about Oskar Schell, an 11-year-old New Yorker whose father (Tom Hanks) is killed at the World Trade Center. A year after the attacks, Oskar remains traumatised, finding comfort in mementos and flights of fantasy – coping mechanisms that converge when he finds a key marked ‘Black’. Determined to find the lock it fits, he starts schlepping around the city, working his way down the Blacks in the phone book. His mother (Sandra Bullock) finds him hard work but his grandmother’s mute lodger (Max von Sydow) is intrigued.
Safran Foer’s novel was a jumble of voices, images and typographical games, dominated by Oskar’s childlike mix of naivety and wishful thinking. It’s a tricky register to translate to film, and Daldry’s reliance on voiceover is unsatisfying. There’s some interesting tension here between the verbal and the audiovisual – the limits and necessity of speech, the vital clamour of the rest. But ‘Extremely Loud…’ ultimately offers a cutesy fantasy of New York and a platitudinous account of trauma and bereavement. Less a film about communication, in the end, than one with its fingers in its ears.