Wonderland UK, 1999. Rated R. 108 minutes.

Cast: Gina McKee, Shirley Henderson, Molly Parker, Ian Hart, John Simm, Stuart Townsend, Kika Markham, Jack Shepherd, Enzo Cilenti, Sarah-Jane Potts
Writer: Lawrence Coriat
Music: Michael Nyman
Cinematographer: Sean Bobbitt
Producers: Anita Overland, David M. Thompson, Stewart Till
Director: Michael Winterbottom


Grade: B Review by Carlo Cavagna

Wonderland was probably the most unjustly overlooked release of 2000 in the United States. While a simple crowd-pleaser like Billy Elliot hogged most of the attention reserved for British indies (which is never much to begin with), movies like Wonderland and Croupier sneaked under the radar and promptly disappeared. If you're one of those few people who thought Billy Elliot was nothing more than a well made (and admittedly sweet) remake of Flashdance, you now have a chance to see something more complex and thought-provoking; Wonderland has been released on video. Better get to the video store quickly, before Wonderland disappears from there, too.

Directed by Michael Winterbottom (The Claim, Jude) in Robert Altman mode, Wonderland weaves multiple storylines involving three sisters, their parents, and another couple whose relevance to the narrative is made clear only at the end. McKee, Henderson, and ParkerStructured similarly to Playing by Heart, Wonderland is a study of romantic relationships at various stages of development: dating, commitment, parenthood, and after many years of marriage. The difference is that happiness is much harder to find in Wonderlandľand the accents are much harder for us colonists to understand.

Opening a voyeur's window into the lives of its characters for exactly three days, Wonderland is a slice-of-life film. Just like in real life, there is no clear exposition (it takes a little time to sort out who's who) or pat conclusion. These are three critical days in the lives of all the characters, of course, and the film's conflicts do reach a climax, but there is no finality. There is just a point when the conflicts are a bit more settled than before and the cameras stop shooting. Whether or not the conflicts stay settled is up to the audience to decide for itself.
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Like any slice-of-life film, Wonderland depends on absolute realism, and for the most part it delivers, the one notable exception being a too-coincidental meeting at a hospital. Winterbottom takes an austere, low-budget approach punctuated by heavily scored, rapid-motion scenes-from-the-city sequences to end each of the three days that may or may not work for audiences depending on personal tastes. Wonderland's finest asset is its cast, which concretizes all the characters' emotions without ever indulging in "Acting!" The ensemble features several talented, recognizable-but-can't-quite-place-them British actors, including Shirley Henderson (Topsy-Turvy, The Claim), Gina McKee (Croupier, Notting Hill), and Molly Parker (Sunshine, Waking the Dead) as the three sisters, Kika Markham (The Innocent and the forthcoming Killing Me Softly) and Jack Shepherd (No Escape, The Scarlet Tunic) as their miserable parents, and Ian Hart (The End of the Affair, Killing Me Softly) and John Simm (Diana & Me) as two of the shiftless men in their lives.

Told mostly from the women's perspectives, Wonderland seems to go down the Waiting to Exhale road of lambasting all the male characters as useless layabouts, commitment-phobes, and womanizers, but it does eventually move away from that thesis to conduct a sincere examination of its characters and themes. For Winterbottom, building a meaningful partnership is fraught with peril and difficulty. The rewards are earned only at high cost. Both men and women have to be willing to take emotional risks, sacrifice a certain amount of personal freedom, do unpleasant things for the sake of family, and fight ennui and disaffection when it sets in. Even if you do all that, Winterbottom seems to be saying, you must know how to recognize and appreciate the rewards of sharing your life with another person, because it's all pointless otherwise. What he's trying to say with McKee's unflattering double-pointed hairdo is another question entirely.

Review © March 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2000 USA Films. All Rights Reserved.

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