Sunday, July 19, 2009


This fanciful British movie boasts one of the unlikeliest collaborations of the last twenty-five years, Dennis Potter and Jim Henson. Potter wrote the script, which is built on a culture-clash factoid from 1932: that year, the 80-year-old Alice Liddell--who, many decades earlier, had been Alice Hargreaves, the model for Lewis Carroll's heroine and the original audience for his Wonderland stories--sailed to the United States to visit Columbia University as part of the celebration of Carroll's centennial. (She died two years later.) Alice is played, by Coral Browne, as a grumpy, out-of-sorts old woman at odds with the new world and a trial to her hired companion, a waifish young girl named Lucy (Nicola Cowper). When they arrive in New York, the two women become attached to Jack (Peter Gallagher), a motormouth newspaperman who decides to serve as Alice's promoter. He also begins a romance with Lucy, which distracts the girl from her usual focus on her employer's every whim and leaves the increasingly befuddled Alice more unmoored than ever. Life is slipping away from Alice, and as it does, her memories, which are ever more indistinguishable from her fantasies, rise up to engulf her.

In flashbacks, we see the young Alice (Amelia Shankley) in her relationship with the Reverend Dodgson (i.e., Carroll), played by Ian Holm, which is based on shared love and affection but also creepy, and not just because Dodgson's feelings for the child may be tinged with sexual longing, but because the girl, acting on what she senses about him, can't resist flaunting her power over him by humiliating him and making him squirm. (Does one reason this movie hasn't made it to DVD have to do with the reluctance in the culture at large to view someone like Dodgson--a man who may have had desires that he channeled into creative work because there was no acceptable way for him to act on them in life--as something more sympathetic than a monster? Can Lewis Carroll co-exist in a world with Dateline NBC?) She also steps into the world of Carroll's books and has conversations with his characters--the Mad Hatter, the March Hair, the Gryphon, the Mock Turtle--that are often disorienting and upsetting. Henson's Creature Shop created huge puppets modeled on the John Tenniel illustrations from the books, and they are not cuddly. The Mad Hatter looks as if he'd taken a dose of radiation that only made him both stronger and meaner; the March Hare could bite your head off.

Like a lot of Dennis Potter's works, Dreamchild is a mixed bag, and there are times, especially in the scenes involving the endearingly mismatched young lovers, where the director, Gavin Millar, seems to not have a clue how to stage this stuff but is prepared to hold his nose, dive in, and hope for the best. But it's generally entertaining except for the sequences that are just downright stunning, and it builds to a remarkable scene when the aged Alice, thinking back on her cruelty towards Dodgson, is able to incorporate her better understanding of their relationship and forgive them both. It gives way to an equally remarkable ending, with the older Alice on a rock by the sea, reunited with both Dodgson and his characters. You can believe they're all still out there somewhere.

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