“If it’s bad art,” Madeleine L’Engle once wrote, “it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject.”
Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is not religious in the same way as the beloved, faith-inflected sci-fi fantasy novel about three children — 13-year-old Meg Murray, her 5-year-old brother Charles Wallace and their 14-year-old friend Calvin — embarking on an interstellar quest for the Murrays’ long-absent father with the aid of three mysterious celestial beings.
Still, the movie has a religious dimension of a sort. Like Disney’s last PG-rated sci-fi fantasy, Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, A Wrinkle in Time can be seen as a kind of secular faith-based film, no less insistent and heavy-handed about its gospel of inclusion, respect and self-esteem than, say, last year’s The Shack with its own gospel of therapeutic faith. Whatever you think of the message, such ham-fisted art undermines it.
Here is a sentence I did not expect to write: The film’s portrayal of the otherworldly Mrs. Ws — Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which — makes the depiction of the Holy Trinity in The Shack profound and numinous by comparison.
The Shack had Octavia Spencer as God the Father (or Papa); A Wrinkle in Time has Oprah Winfrey as the formidable Mrs. Which. Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who are played by Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling, respectively.
Apparently if there’s a trio of unearthly, ageless personages assuming human form in order to guide members of our species on a journey of discovery, they will probably be played by a diverse trio of actors with an African-American woman presiding in some way. (A kind of Della Reese Principle?)
I can roll with that, and if I can roll with a movie imagining God choosing to appear to someone looking like Spencer (and I kind of can), I’m certainly willing to accept Oprah as — well, whatever kind of higher being this Mrs. Which is supposed to be. (The book explicitly identifies the Mrs. Ws as angels, but the movie never says what they are.)
The problem isn’t exactly Oprah, Witherspoon or Kaling, though it isn’t exactly not them, either. The problem is that, for all the colorfully extravagant costume design and glittery makeup, their characters are at best whimsical but not really odd or and never mysterious or compelling. They barely rise to the level of kooky shtick, and engender no sense of higher wisdom or even emotional connection.
I had problems with The Shack, but at least when Spencer told Sam Worthington that he had no idea how much she loved him, I accepted that coming from her.
Not only does Witherspoon’s Mrs. Whatsit never tell Meg (Storm Reid) that she loves her (a line that in the book turns out to have crucial plot significance), I wouldn’t believe her if she did, since nothing we see of her manifests the slightest comprehension either of love or of Meg.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.