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'Wonderland': Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 11, 2000


    'Wonderland' Gina McKee, right, faces gritty and messy realities in "Wonderland." (Universal)
The first thing to know about "Wonderland," a British doom-and-gloom soap-opera-cum-epic is that, well, it's no bloomin' wonderland.

Not when the principal characters are drawn from irresponsible husbands, scheming pickup artists, misanthropic mothers, depressed young women, sullen young men, slutty chain smokers and ignored children. And those are the good guys.

Although "Wonderland" resolves itself into something like a happy ending (as good as you'll get in a film like this, anyway), you need to adjust your cultural blinkers to appreciate this often-powerful, and more often bracing, experience.

Grim, yes, and great viewing.

Set in London at its grayest and most claustrophobic (with a hint of Mike Leigh atmosphere sans amusing dialogue), this movie isn't "about" anything. Which makes it about everything. This is English life sliced open and left to ooze all over the pavement, like a spilled bag of heartburn coffee and fish and chips.

Set over a long weekend (and leading up to "Guy Fawkes Day," Nov. 5, Britain's fireworks holiday), the film follows the ironic course of daily (and nightly) life among the members of an English family. The scenes are documentary in nature, with unflattering lighting, long-lasting scenes and fragmented, unedited conversation. It's a fly-on-the-wall drama . . . and that fly had better not buzz or someone's going to squash it.

At the head of the family are long-suffering Bill (Jack Shepherd) and his morose wife (Kika Markham), whose loveless marriage has produced four children, now grown up.

Their only son, Darren (Enzo Cilenti), has deserted the family. Nadia (Gina McKee), a sweethearted single woman, is desperately seeking a romantic relationship. Molly (Molly Parker), who's pregnant, is about to discover her husband Eddie (John Simm) is panicking about his parental/marital future. And Debbie (Shirley Henderson), a giggly, chain-smoking hairdresser, divides her time between partying and parenting her preteen son, Jack (Peter Marfleet). When she's ready to do the town, she sends Jack to her shiftless, estranged husband, Dan (Ian Hart).

The multi-plotted story follows the highs and lows of these characters as they search, mostly unsuccessfully, for happiness or human connection. Life doesn't seem to permit them more than short-term diversion; mostly, they are fighting long-term disappointment. And yet, these are all strong, stirring people to watch. They feel real – not airbrushed into adorability for entertainment's sake. And, as you get to know them, you become caught up in the minutiae of their lives, warts and all.

Screenwriter Laurence Coriat, director Michael Winterbottom and composer Michael Nyman arrange these interconnecting stories into a rich, ironic symphony. After each "movement," as it were (punctuated by the days), Nyman's searing score brings the audience into a sort of contemplative state. The music seems to wash down the mixture of joy, sorrow and frustration, reinvigorating you for the next day.

Inevitably, the story develops to a dramatically preordained conclusion. And this is when "Wonderland" nods in the direction of Hollywood's patented endings. You probably know by now that when a character is pregnant in a movie, that birth is bound to come at the most inopportune moment – but just at the right time to give the movie a hopeful conclusion. But so much of this movie feels like open-ended experience, it's almost a relief to see resolutions. And even though things may seem "finished" as we close the drama, it's clear they're really not. After all, there's always Tuesday.

WONDERLAND (R, 108 minutes) – Contains misery, nudity, sex and obscenity. Some of the English might be difficult to understand.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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