review by Elias Savada, 4 August 2000

Alice doesn’t appear until the end of this British ensemble feature, and she’s just small enough to follow you down the rabbit hole you tumbled into ninety-plus minutes earlier. It IS worth the wait. Her parents, grandparents, aunts, nephew, and a few other black sheep associated with the family have been making a jolly interweaving run of the town for the last seventy-two hours and she’ll have to grow up a few years before she realizes the foibles, fun, heartbreak, sadness, boredom, ignorance, and bliss they’ve put us through in this new film from director Michael Winterbottom (Butterfly Kiss, Jude, Welcome to Sarajevo). It’s a wonderful feature debut script by Laurence Coriat, inspired by Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and with a less sprawling nod to Magnolia.

One family’s ties are knotted over a long weekend in South London. On the menu are three sisters (one married, one divorced, one single), an estranged and oversexed brother, and their pathetic, bickering -- almost to the point of physical harm -- parents. Everyone’s emotion-filled lives connect this way and that as the hand-held camera captures their relationships. We get to eavesdrop on them as if watching an unbelievably realistic documentary. No doubt Winterbottom’s choice of Sean Bobbitt, an experienced non-fiction film cameraman, as director of photography (his feature debut) had a significant role in shaping this film. Throughout the film the camera explores maybe a hundred or more faces -- strangers, subliminal characters -- to emphasize the gloom, elation, or pride of events surrounding them. As effective as the use of natural lighting is, Michael Nyman’s score adds a bold dimensional layer to the soundtrack, often overpowering the dialogue but never detracting from it.

We first are introduced to twenty-seven-year-old Nadia (Notting Hill’s Gina McKee), a café waitress with budding whiffs of Princess Leia hair buns. She’s searching for love in all the wrong places, i.e. personal ads and lonelyhearts clubs. Her phone tape is chock full of messages from daily liars and losers. Obviously Mr. Right isn’t through the entire film, until a peripheral character makes his move (and thus explains his seemingly unrelated storyline). Apparently not all at ease with her parents (none of the siblings are), she offers to one her dates that “I used to pretend I was an orphan.”

She occasionally babysits Jack (Peter Marfleet), the young son of her older sister Debbie (Topsy-Turvy’s Shirley Henderson), a hairdresser who likes to use her salon to entertain male guests after hours with vodka and sex. Her ex-, Dan is a (to her) self-impressed, beer-drinking, pub-hopping ne’er-do-well, shirking responsibilities and seemingly causing the family much aggravation by his roving eye and lazy habits. Ian Hart, who starred as John Lennon in Backbeat, fills the wannabe lady-killer role with a grand gusto of indifference, concern, and misunderstanding.

A very pregnant Molly (Molly Parker, lately of Sunshine and The Five Senses) and doting husband Eddie (Jon Simm) are barely making end’s meet on his salary as a kitchen salesman. She thinks she’s fat and ugly (Debbie helps with a makeover). Meanwhile the anxiety of his job and the forthcoming birth of their daughter force him to drastic measures that batter his wife’s nerves as she goes into labor. A coincidental motorcycle accident allows for an unexpected reunion.

Darren, their handsome brother who has disconnected himself for some time from the family, takes a hotel room with a beautiful orange-haired girlfriend and proceeds to have a very happy birthday. Before leaving town he makes a short but poignant effort to rejoin the family circle.

Mom and dad haven’t had a love-filled moment in years, perhaps caused by the “loss” of their son from the fold. He’s wimpy and always tinkering with the car (anything to get out of the house), and she’s a nervous wreck from the ever-barking dog belonging to the inconsiderate Portuguese family in the next-door flat, looking for solace at a local bingo parlor. Neither cares to jump ship or cause waves, although she does take a rash step one evening to get a good night’s rest. They’re devoted to their children, but obviously not part of their inner circle. Kika Markham and Jack Shepherd fill these positions with loneliness and desperation.

The film’s approach, while linear, does make for some confusion until you can figure out all the characters in the program. There are adequate clues, but you might want to keep good mental notes. You’ll find the final quiz that much easier and the film that much more enjoyable for the challenge. Yes, Wonderland is wonderful.

Directed by:
Michael Winterbottom

Gina McKee
Molly Parker
Shirley Henderson
John Simm
Ian Hart
Kika Markham
Jack Shepherd
Enzo Cilenti
Sarah-Jane Potts
Stuart Townsend

Written by:
Laurence Coriat







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