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'Wonderland': A Trip Down The Rabbit Hole to Hard Reality

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 11, 2000


    'Wonderland' Gina McKee, right, faces gritty and messy realities in "Wonderland." (Universal)
Ugh! Ick!

"Wonderland" is full of that bitterest of all elixirs, the one we hate and fear and spit out in a hydraulic spurt of contempt if we encounter it unprepared: the truth.

The rotten truth, which is that, except in the elaborate fantasies of show biz, we are all lonely gropers, wretched novices, tyro emoters, and with nobody writing our lines, our dialogue is stupid, pointless and unfunny. Meanwhile, we hurt more and more every day and here's the really funny part: It ends only when we die!

The movie is the progeny of Michael Winterbottom, the same Brit who directed "Welcome to Sarajevo" and the almost unsurvivable "Jude." (Why I didn't kill myself after that one, I'll never know.) And he appears to have been obsessed with a certain question raised by the Beatles in "Eleanor Rigby." "All the lonely people," wondered Paul and John, "where do they all belong?"

Evidently they belong in a movie by Michael Winterbottom.

This one follows three London sisters through a weekend in their lives. Initially I thought it was about a crisis in each of the three lives, and the lives of their miserable parents and brother and various lovers, wannabe lovers, betrayers and dreamers. But no. "Crisis" connotes a brief spasm of emotional pain. There's nothing brief in "Wonderland." It's not about something in their lives that will shortly be out of their lives. It's about . . . their lives. It says: It's always like this.

Nadia, single and plain, moves through London aching for human contact. When she finds it, she flees in confusion and pain. The movie opens in a bar, where the poor woman (Gina McKee) is meeting a fellow from a personals ad. They fumble and grope and exchange banalities so pitiful they are painful, until she finally excuses herself to the loo, hits the door and walks for hours, leaving the poor bloke practicing his lines and checking his watch while he thinks the girl is taking the longest pee in history.

Nadia has two sisters: Debbie (Shirley Henderson), a tough beautician with a son and no husband (the father is a self-indulgent lout), and Molly (Molly Parker), who seems to be the one who has it all--soundly employed husband (John Simm), baby-to-be cooking in the oven, middle-class stability. Meanwhile, the three women's ma and da (Kika Markham and Jack Shepherd) quietly loathe each other and live in near-perfect silence. Then, on the same day that Debbie's hubby loses her son, Molly's husband mysteriously quits work.

Life is miserable. Life is awful. Life is terrible. Life is too much. We've got to get out of this place (the world). All the lonely people, Where do they all come from, All the lonely people, Where do they all belong?

What makes this ecstasy of agony bearable is Winterbottom's technique. Employing methods devised by Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, he shoots the entire movie in a cinema verite style, with hand-held cameras in actual streets and clubs and hospitals. If the actors are remembering lines, they're remembering them as if they're improvising them on the spot or, more to the point, living them on the spot.

The result is an almost seamless sense of reality, or rather realism without the stylizations of cinema. The movie has a feeling of documentary, and its feature-film tropes aren't immediately visible. Only afterward do you realize how artfully the structure has been constructed, how the drama of each of the three sisters reflects the drama of the other two, how the rhythms mesh and play off each other, how cleverly common characters move from the orbit of one into the other and then the third, and how there's maybe just a little too much congruence for something as raggedy and unclear as real life.

Then finally, and uncharacteristically, Winterbottom suggests that amid all this squalor and hopelessness and quiet desperation, grace notes of hope persist, like roses in slag heaps. In each story, at movie's end, there's an uptick of possibility.

I'm not sure he ever makes me believe it, or if he was afraid he'd unleash a wave of suicide among his audience. Nevertheless, while it's no good time at the movies, "Wonderland" is an excruciatingly authentic experience.

WONDERLAND(R, 108 minutes) – Contains frankness and profanity.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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