Gina McKee, Shirley Henderson, and Molly Parker star in Michael Winterbottom for Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Wonderland (1999, Michael Winterbottom)

From a description–not even from a few minutes–Wonderland might appear to fit into (or create again) the British realism movement. It’s shot on video, natural lighting, natural make-up, no visible tripod shots, all hand-held, all very cinema verite. There’s no artificiality to it. Except the artificiality of being a filmed narrative.

Wonderland even visibly bucks against the idea of cinema standards–the easy comic scene of an expectant father encountering a troublesome newborn is instead everyday, one of the things Eddie (John Simm) sees as a kitchen salesman. Lawrence Coriat’s script is set on a weekend, starting with Thursday night–the weekend’s special, by the end of the film, because of the events transpired during the running time, but initially, it’s special–and Wonderland is presented as the slice of these characters’ lives to present to an audience–because of absent brother Darren (Enzo Cilenti), his birthday and his visit to London.

He’s not there to visit his sisters, Debbie (Shirley Henderson), Nadia (Gina McKee) or Molly (Molly Parker)–though it’s seriously implied the only one he had any sort of significant relationship with is Nadia. Nor is he there to see his parents, Bill (Jack Shepherd) or Eileen (Kika Markham). He’s there with his girlfriend Melanie (Sarah-Jane Potts), who’s apparently in the financial position to throw him a great birthday weekend.

There’s no glorious family reunion. There are no tearful, heartfelt moments where Darren and Bill talk. Winterbottom and Coriat enjoy dangling possible cinematic melodramas in front of the viewer, only to dismiss such events, sometimes not unkindly–like when Debbie’s son, Jack (Peter Marfleet), gets mugged. It’s a huge moment, the culmination of everyone concerned’s fears, yet it’s barely shown. The villains are not emphasized and if one were to look away for a moment, he or she could miss it.

But there is glory to Wonderland and that glory is where the film doesn’t just earn its title, but its place alongside Tati’s Play Time. Wonderland is a celebration of Londoners and an exquisitely discrete one. Winterbottom’s London doesn’t come alive until after dark, when it’s awash with lights. Though he’s shooting with digital cameras and using natural light, Winterbottom emphasizes how the artificial lights of the landscape–whether cars’ headlights or shopfronts’ fluorescents–create the vibrant backdrop for the wonderment.

One of the things Tati did with Play Time and, to a somewhat lesser extent, M. Hulot’s Holiday, was draw attention to the generic beauty of people through music. There’s a compilation of Tati’s film’s themes out and if one listens to it when observing the common–people playing frisbee in a park, people walking through an urban center–everything becomes beautiful. To some degree–and it’s a little measured, because Winterbottom and composer Michael Nyman are conservative with it–Wonderland does the same thing. It shows the viewer how beautiful life can be, how wondrous it can be, all while acknowledging its subjects might only be experiencing this beauty and wonder for a moment.

Wonderland‘s interpretation of beauty and wonderment in the common world–because there’s nothing fantastic about the plot, about the setting–even the “melodramatic” moments are completely reasonable, whether it’s Nadia meeting ex-brother-in-law Dan (Ian Hart) on a blind, dating service date or Molly and missing husband Eddie meeting up in the metropolitan hospital–these moments play out without melodrama, without acknowledgment of the possibility of Coriat contriving them. Instead, they’re part of the tapestry, part of the web–they’re part of these characters’ lives. That coincidence–without Coriat or Winterbottom ever drawing attention it or the general artificiality of the motion picture scenario–is one of Wonderland‘s greatest beauties. As the events pass in the running time, as people argue or people cry, it immediately becomes something in the memory of the characters experiencing the events. It’s a crazy idea–if the film doesn’t slow down to acknowledge contrivance or melodrama, do the characters themselves experience it?

But if Wonderland is moving too fast to let its characters catch on, it’s also moving so fast it begs to have the viewer slow it down, to consider each day (separated by title card) or even further–to look at how Winterbottom and Coriat juxtapose the characters with one another. Nadia and Eileen, who have no scenes, don’t even talk about each other–one of the stranger and more realistic facets of Wonderland is how the daughters’ stories, with the exception of Molly, could be separated from the parents and they’d be narratively sound–have this stunning juxtaposition in terms of camera placement. And camera placement means more in Wonderland, something where camera placement and composition should seemingly be more environment defined. When Winterbottom places an actor in the same place as another actor, it isn’t a cute transition, it’s a silent, telling comment on the relationship between the family members, between the people.

And Wonderland really does–like all great stories–bring Faulkner’s point about literature discussing people, not characters, to the fore. It’s impossible to think of Nadia as Gina McKee, even though–at the time–she was the most famous (at least to American audiences) actor in the film. Nadia, with her goofy hair and dating problems, is definitely the protagonist for a lot of the film, but it’s all so fluid, the film moves away from her. Her story is the most cinematic… but not really. All of the sisters–Debbie, Nadia, Molly–go through an incredibly cinematic story during Wonderland‘s running time. How Coriat found time to include Debbie’s son or Molly’s husband or their parents in this story–which only runs an hour and fifty minutes–is incredible. Wonderland begs for narrative deconstruction, not just for Coriat’s plotting, but for how Winterbottom films it.

The last sibling, Darren, is different from the rest. He’s living–with girlfriend Melanie (I’m not sure Potts’s character ever gets named in the film)–the life his family dreams of. He’s out in that exciting, Technicolor, neon London nighttime landscape his sisters only can look at. Molly doesn’t even realize she has anything to do with it, which makes her both sympathetic and sad. Her husband, Eddie, can clearly see what they’re missing and longs for it. Debbie tries to straddle it and being a single mother, but finds both difficult. Nadia, who should move through it with the greatest ease, stumbles. The scene where Nadia falls for a guy–the first time–is devastating, because it reveals this character, this protagonist, in a way the viewer never before saw.

Like I said before, Wonderland begs a certain amount of analysis–why do the colors of Eddie and Molly’s apartment match the colors of the title cards, why does London only come to life on film at night, why does the viewer get a closer look into Nadia’s life than any of the other sisters–but it resists any analysis. It’s a distant film–there’s not a single pay-off moment in the whole thing; it’s populated with unhappy people struggling.

In the end, not everyone gets a reward, nor should they.

But some do and they deserve it.

And so does the viewer.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Winterbottom; written by Laurence Coriat; director of photography, Sean Bobbitt; edited by Trevor Waite; music by Michael Nyman; production designer, Mark Tildesley; released by PolyGram.

Starring Shirley Henderson (Debbie), Gina McKee (Nadia), Molly Parker (Molly), Ian Hart (Dan), John Simm (Eddie), Stuart Townsend (Tim), Kika Markham (Eileen), Jack Shepherd (Bill), Enzo Cilenti (Darren), Sarah-Jane Potts (Melanie), David Fahm (Franklyn), Ellen Thomas (Donna) and Peter Marfleet (Jack).

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