WHEN ALICE POPS through the looking glass in the Lewis Carroll tale, she finds herself confusingly caught up in circumstances already in progress. Wonderland gives viewers the same feeling of disorientation, thanks to the dizzying immediacy of the documentary-like handheld 16mm camera employed by director Michael Winterbottom (Butterfly Kiss, Welcome to Sarajevo). We're simply thrust into the complicated interweaving lives of a South London family over a four-day period. Like Alice, we also lack a back story to explain their behavior. We're challenged to balance our initial assumptions about three sisters, their estranged brother, and their unhappily married parents against a fuller knowledge that only gradually accumulates.
directed by Michael Winterbottom
with Gina McKee, Molly Parker, Shirley Henderson, and Ian Hart
opens August 4 at Metro
The Carroll parallels don't end there. In this world, people seem unnaturally large in their cramped personal spaces. Their frequent boozing skews their judgment, as though a "drink me" tag dangled from each glass. And, like the magical place Alice visits, a hallucinatory London sweeps these characters into its thrumming currents. The city's contrasts—carefully juxtaposed with the family's struggles—offer as much emotional resonance as the individual stories: Lonely coffee shop employee Nadia (Gina McKee) scans the personals for true love; her sister Molly (Molly Parker) is about to have a baby; the oldest sister, Debbie (Shirley Henderson), is a hard-partying beautician with an 11-year-old son by her ex-husband (Ian Hart, gloriously sleazy as the irresponsible dad). Their parents, still mourning their absent son, cannot stand to be in the same room. While each person does their best to find something that will make them happy, the film revels in their insignificance against a monumental urban canvas.
Rendered with sped-up camera work and fuzzy panoramas, London becomes a strange, beautiful place that's both familiar and unrecognizable. The family members go about their business alongside everyone else, but their business has increasing urgency to it: The baby's due any minute; the estranged son comes through town; and the 11-year-old sneaks away for a night. When Molly decides to name her unborn child Alice, Wonderland becomes a giant sneak preview of the baby's future. We suddenly apprehend how—to her new, uncomprehending eyes—the teeming metropolis will seem so overwhelming, and how her troubled, imperfect family will provide her only shelter. In both senses, like every other resident of the city, she'll be part of something much greater than herself.