The Dream of Wonderland of Long Ago

Delighted to have a contribution from Tim Hayes, the first entry to this blogathon to celebrate a composer, if I’m not mistaken. The composer in question being Basil Poledouris — if you know him, you love him, if you don’t know him, read the piece, you may find you have known him all along.

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Coral Browne, stunning in DREAMCHILD (1985). It was to be her last role, and it is suitably valedictory. “The grim reaper wears a smile for me.” Written by Dennis Potter, whose work always had a quality of aching nostalgia, even when he was young, and whose masterpiece may be not a TV play, series or film, but his beautiful final interview.

DREAMCHILD is about facing death, which means facing your life and reflecting on it. As a vehicle for this, Potter chose Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the model for Alice in Wonderland, who made a trip to America aged 80 to be honoured by Columbia University. Potter equips her with a young companion Nicola Cowper, and a pushy American newspaperman (a ludicrously young Peter Gallagher). And, brilliantly, he mixes scenes from Lewis Carroll with memories of Charles Dodgson, the stuttering don who loved Alice and immortalized her, movingly played by Ian Holm (about twenty years too old for the part, but who cares when the performance is this good?).

I was lucky enough to see this on its (minimal, transitory) first release, with a Q&A with director Gavin Millar, a scholarly fellow who had made many BBC documentaries. One particularly good one on Fellini explains the presence of a rippling fabric sea in Wonderland, for the grotesque, menacing Gryphon and soggy Mock Turtle to exchange unpleasantries in front of.

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The wonderland creatures, even the Hatter, are all played by animatronic creations from Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop. With its comparatively miniscule budget, DREAMCHILD could never have afforded these lavish practical effects, but Henson & Co decided to treat the film as r&d for the forthcoming LABYRINTH, so Millar got himself a bargain. The idea is to make the familiar fairytale figures threatening and disturbing, as the aged Alice has a bad conscience and is menaced by memories she doesn’t want to face. The Gryphon is voiced with Scots aggression by Fulton Mackay, who had plenty of experiences sitting on beaches in LOCAL HERO, the Turtle by Alan Bennett, and the March Hare by my idol Ken Campbell (who also appears as a radio sound effects man).

These sequences, and the transitions between them, are enhanced greatly by Stanley Myers’ sonorous score, which throbs and scrapes and elevates everything it touches with a high seriousness.

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There are a few problems. The budget seems strained in places. Millar admitted that it was very hard to find stock footage of 30s New York in colour. I say that if stock footage is your answer, you may be asking the wrong question. Since the stock shots cannot be integrated with the actors, it can only serve as establishing shots, and “establishing shots are a waste of time,” as Brian DePalma once sagely grumbled. I can see why the movie might have looked too small and too internal without wide shots in the pretend New York (British locations and sets, reasonably effective). Getting a cameraman to the real New York and filming UP might have helped. Stylisation might have solved everything, but I can see why Millar wanted a contrast between the “real” and “fantasy” elements of the story.

Millar also confessed that the love story in the film struck him as its weakest element, and I agree. Part of this has to do with Gallagher, who seems quite capable of playing a fast-talking newspaperman of the period (Millar cited HIS GIRL FRIDAY as the model for this stuff), but who hasn’t been driven on or given his head, and who is surrounded by actors who need time to think, so the pace never reaches a third of what it should be.

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Quibbles over — when the movie is in the past, it seems rich and lavish, and likewise the Wonderland scenes. Whenever it focuses on Coral Browne, it is a majestic success. And it has a secret weapon in Amelia Shankley as Little Alice, an incredible Personality Kid who can seemingly do anything, and is a match for Ian Holm in their scenes together. Millar remarked that the kids were amazingly good at looping dialogue, but really they’re amazing at everything. Shankley is immediately my favourite screen Alice, helped by the fact that she’s doing a different job than the others, playing the real girl rather than the fictional version (Potter’s character has more dimensions than Carroll’s) and by the fact that she’s close to the right age, unlike everyone else, ever. And since she has shorter, darker hair than the Tenniel illustration, she looks like the real girl and she’s free from comparisons with any other movie Alice anyway.

Millar’s excellent work with his cast is augmented by the disconcerting way he shuffles material — no doubt suggested at least by Potter, who delighted in flashbacks, dreams, daydreams — he brought the Fellini 8 1/2 approach to British television. It’s one big Kuleshov effect — elderly Alice looks, and the Charles Dodgson of seventy years ago looks back. Time shatters and the mirror fragments reflect a cluster of disconnected moments.

Browne was right to bow out here. There are distressingly few good roles for older actresses, and the chances of another part this rich coming along would be slim. With her big, wide, wide-apart eyes, she resembles at times an animatronic effect herself, but the life she projects is real, the lines on her face sculpted by time, not a modeller’s tools. I would wish for her a death as gracious as the one seemingly awaiting Alice, but it was not to be. Her death from cancer was protracted and undignified.

As a small recompense, she was granted immortality.

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11 Responses to “The Dream of Wonderland of Long Ago”

  1. G. H. Lewmer Says:

    Thanks for showcasing a wonderful film that has unfortunately fallen through the cracks of time. Great writing!

  2. I prefer Coral as herself, HERE

  3. Thanks, G.H. EMI and Rank were worse than the Soviet Union for making films then suppressing them.

  4. I also saw this on its first release and loved it. But recall other people absolutely loathing it.

  5. Why? Because it contains a sympathetic pedophile (not a child molester, but a man romantically in love with a child)? Oddly, it seems to get away with that smoothly. Potter, a kind of curdled romantic, got his excesses under control and poured his soul into that, I think.

  6. Thanks for hosting yet again — year six? Anyway, my contribution is now up, here:

    http://garethsmovies.blogspot.com/2015/11/le-gendarme-et-les-gendarmettes.html

  7. I’m thinking in particular of a couple of friends whose tastes I usually shared. I don’t think I pursued why they hated it, but the virulence of their response suggests that it was due to the pedophile squick.

  8. Hard to imagine such a story ever being told if not for Carroll’s cultural popularity. Well, maybe the French would do it.

  9. I have fond memories of Gavin Millar’s Roald Dahl adaptation Danny, too, another film with a more than decent child actor at work with some big hitters.

  10. renlauoutil Says:

    I remember assuming I wouldn’t like this film, as I studied Alice in a philosophy and lit course at college, and found the story and its logic games and riddles irritating – okay, I was too stupid for them. Also, I wondered how many times could Potter keep going back to childhood for inspiration. Well now I realise that he could go back as often as he liked – it’s a great place for ideas and material. The fun thing about this late work blog concept is how often it leads one to reassess in the light of experience and age – a kind of late style I itself really.

    I’m puzzled about De Palma and the establishing shot. Maybe I don’t fully understand the term – I’m not an expert. But I remember reading a book a long time ago about the making of The Bonfire of the Vanities and the lengths De Palma went to for a shot of Concorde landing in New York in the magic hour – as an establishing shot. I think the crew even called it something like his ‘million dollar establishing shot’. But perhaps it’s actually my memory that’s shot.

    But great piece about Dreamchild. It’s now on my list.

    R

  11. Ah, I should see Danny: Champion of the World! Passed me by completely.

    I guess there are establishing shots and establishing shots. If the Concorde is introducing a character, it isn’t just there to establish a location, but a lifestyle and a personality. And DePalma is big on making the space of a scene clear and has been known to crane about it for ages. But I think if something is JUST establishing the setting, that’s old-school televisual and boring. And if it’s doing it by stock footage, it’s an offense.

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