Wonderland (2000)


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Wonderland (2000) Review

The city of London has a million stories, and Wonderland tells just one of them -- well, okay, three. No, five -- five! Six -- eight -- all right, eleven subplots competing for screen time.

At the center are three sisters lookin' for a little love and compassion. Perky Soho waitress Nadia (Gina McKee, Croupier), her hair punked out in cute rabbit ears, indulges in the lonely hearts club of personal ads for Mr. Right, or at least a decent lay. Abrasive, no-nonsense hairdresser Debbie (Shirley Henderson, Topsy-Turvy) settles into a tract of not taking shit from anyone, especially her irresponsible ex, Dan (Ian Hart, Spring Forward). He can barely be counted on for weekend visits to their teenage son (Peter Marfleet). Molly (Molly Parker, Waking the Dead) is very pregnant and needs a little support from her friends, especially when her husband (John Simm) goes through a mid-life career meltdown.

Wonderland also finds time for their parents, friends, lovers, and a mystery guest (Enzo Cilenti) who rides into town, inhabiting his own little movie of playful hotel room sex. His place in their circle of life is revealed at the climax, natch. Each of these characters are given their own revealing strands trailing off from the central web of Chekhovian sisters. Bleak lives and bitter struggles are the order of the day.

Talented director Michael Winterbottom (Jude, Welcome to Sarajevo) pulls out all the stops in his cinematic bag of tricks. He nobly attempts to elevate this contrived soap opera material to gritty, hard-edged realism. Wonderland's "look" is pure cinema verite, right down to the restless hand-held camera breezing through gritty locations, documentary-style. Winterbottom coaxes naturalistic performances from a who's-who of young British talent and tosses into the mix plenty of vivid cutaways of working class extras.

While easy on the eyes, Winterbottom's sterling visual interpretation is significantly undermined by Laurence Coriat's generic script. Juggling all those characters, you'd think he'd be able to come up with at least one that didn't simply go through the motions toward a predictable outcome. McKee invests Nadia with chilly grace, but the canny viewer will see the outcome of her handsome date du jour (Stuart Townsend) long before it happens.

The scenes with the griping parents (Jack Shepherd and Kika Markham) are especially weak, their disgruntled non-communication played to such a pitch it borders on parody. By the time nasty old mum is plotting against the barking dog next door, representative of her hatred of the world at large, we take a sudden detour into The Wizard of Oz. I'll get you, my pretty!

Winterbottom makes an interesting soundtrack choice in selecting Peter Greenaway's favorite minimalist composer, Michael Nyman. The score's voluptuous repetitions of graceful epiphanies might seem more appropriate to a fantasy film, but it brings to mind the cosmic epiphanies during everyday life glimpsed in James Joyce's Dubliners. Nyman's glorious excess doesn't quite jive with the gritty onscreen squalor, but it's a bold idea to suggest the passions swirling within mundane lives.

Coriat claims to have been inspired by Robert Altman's Short Cuts, a film with the benefit of Raymond Carver's perceptive source material. One could also easily compare the structure to Happiness, Hannah and Her Sisters, or Magnolia. We've been down this road a few too many times before for Wonderland to feel particularly original.

Viewers who would like something a little different from the "multiple subplot family crisis" subgenre are encouraged to seek out Patrice Chéreau's Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train. This French film employs a similar verite approach, not to mention an eclectic taste in music, but it's less concerned with wrapping up each of the stories. Like life, it's a story which begins and ends in transit.

Wonderland, on the other hand, betrays the writer's hand with watertight resolutions that have been the trappings of melodrama throughout the ages. For all of Winterbottom's high-tech wizardry, transforming London into an impressionistic streak of neon light, he can't pull this humdrum tragicomedy out of the gutter.