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    Callous in Wonderland

    For those who like bleak, "Wonderland" offers a gloomily accurate portrait of a brood of Brits.


    Nobody does quiet despair quite like the British.

    Directed by: Michael Winterbottom.
    Written by: Laurence Coriat.
    Cast: Shirley Henderson, Gina McKee, Molly Parker, Ian Hart, John Simm, Stuart Townsend, Kika Markham, Jack Shepherd, Enzo Cilenti, Sarah-Jane Potts, David Fahm, Ellen Thomas, Peter Marfleet, Nathan Constance.
    Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt.

    Related links: All of David N. Butterworth's reviews at Rotten Tomatoes
    Consider the working-class stiffs of Mike Leigh's "High Hopes" or "Life is Sweet," or the itinerant laborers of Ken Loach's "Riff-Raff." Numbed by societal pressures, these sad sacks drown their sorrows in a pint of beer while talking incessantly about the weather. When hurt, conflict, or indecision arise, they have a stock answer for everything: "Swings and roundabouts." "It'll all come out in the wash." "Mustn't grumble."

    But grumble they do.

    Adding to the emotionally-addled denizens of Leigh's and Loach's films are the culturally-scarred men and women of Michael Winterbottom's "Wonderland," a sardonically titled film if ever there was one. Not that "High Hopes" or "Life is Sweet" couldn't be construed as tongue-in-cheek designations either.

    From their dreary high-rise existences (the estate agent's brochure probably said "lovely view of St. Paul's"), a gaggle of East Londoners try desperately to find true love and happiness. There's Nadia (Gina McKee of "Notting Hill" and "Croupier"), a lonely young coffee-shop waitress desperately seeking someone — anyone — via the personals. There's nothing wrong with her that a new hairdo wouldn't cure — the style she so unflatteringly sports could best be described as hammerhead shark. There's Debbie (Shirley Henderson), a horny hairdresser with a pre-teen son and an estranged, worthless lout of a husband. And there's Molly (Molly Parker), hours away from giving birth while her spouse, a kitchen salesman who's just quit his moribund day job, rehearses his "I meant to tell you" speech on a bridge overlooking the brooding Thames.

    These individuals seem like models of stability, however, compared to Bill and Eileen (played by Jack Shepherd and Kika Markham), a middle-aged couple who bicker and insult each other well into the night serenaded by the incessant barking of their next-door neighbor's dog.

    As in the much glossier Hollywood product "Playing by Heart," the characters in this film cleverly come together in an unexpected way, here during a birth so authentic-looking you wonder if actress Parker might have been truly pregnant during the filming of this sequence.

    Winterbottom has done literary adaptation ("Jude") before and war-torn political drama ("Welcome to Sarajevo") before and now, with equally telling accuracy, he's done domestic alienation docu-drama. But "Wonderland" is so relentlessly bleak it's hard to recommend as entertainment, since so few people connect in the film, or have much of a reason to even smile. And if empathizing with the characters' miserable existences isn't difficult enough, the director shoots most of the film in a handheld cinema-verité style which, coupled with the grainy digital video transfer, makes the experience a dizzying one.

    Michael Nyman contributes a somber score but it only really comes to life twice, first during a brief turning-heads soccer sequence and then accompanying some fireworks (since the film takes place on the days leading up to Britain's Guy Fawkes Night).

    Alas, the only fireworks in "Wonderland" are those up in the night sky, not exchanged between the principals.

    AUGUST 21, 2000

    Reader comments on Wonderland:

  • I like it   from f.h.p, Aug 17, 2001
  • [no subject]   from Lou, Dec 22, 2004
  • I Love the Drugs   from Ashley, Mar 17, 2005
  • Wonderland...schmonderland   from marcus, Mar 19, 2006
  • [no subject]   from Sophia, Aug 11, 2006

  • Post a comment on "Wonderland"