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Movie Review - All in the family

Wonderland explores the alienation of modern life

Opens Sept. 1

Wonderland is an almost imperceptibly tragic film focused on the petty grievances, jealousies, unrequited desires and anger that often define families. Armed with the kind of subtle details more common to modern novels than films, Wonderland settles into the skin of its clan of working-class Londoners — as desperate and real as any flesh and blood creature. Characters in Wonderland are notable for their unsavory sides — even the most woebegone ones are as able to dish out spite and malice as they are likely to feel burned when those same nasties are inflicted. Shot with the rangy, from-the-hip energy of verité documentary, Michael Winterbottom's film often resembles the scruffiness and working-class vantage of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, with a nod to the close-to-the-bone verisimilitude of the French New Wave. Dialogue, spoken in clotted British accents, is often lost amidst the fracas of London's white noise: cars, sirens, crowded rooms with low ceilings. Sean Bobbitt's cinematography is similarly layered and messy and complemented by Michael Nyman's dispirited piano score tracking the characters about their daily routines. Winterbottom seems aware of how much more powerfully his tale of estrangement registers in these hopelessly banal settings, in the claustrophobic spaces where his characters live, with beds squeezed into narrow rooms, laundry hanging to dry in bathrooms and meals eaten on fold-out beds.

A rambling, ensemble film in the style of Altman's Short Cuts or Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, Wonderland has more in common with the pained humanism of the latter. The film documents the small and large dramas unfolding amongst three sisters in one sprawling family and their friends and acquaintances around London.

Like some illustrative chart of human life stages, each of the sisters and their mother, Eileen (Kika Markham), occupy a step on the relationship ladder: Nadia (Gina McKee), painfully single; Debbie (Shirley Henderson), divorced and the mother of 11-year-old Jack (Peter Marfleet); Molly (Molly Parker), expecting her first child; and their Mum, the most dejected of all, still living miserably with their father. The claustrophobia of Mum's life is almost unbearable — hunkered down in her narrow flat, she picks fights with her despised husband and grows more and more agitated at the sound of the neighbor's dog barking. Like some external expression of her frustration, the barking echoes Mum's festering rage.

Even the most sympathetic characters play with our expectations and register truer for their shortcomings, like Nadia who falls hard for one of her personal-ad boyfriends. After their second date (and first sex), he wordlessly pushes her out the door, turning up the romantically dimmed lights and helping himself to another serving of dinner as Nadia collects her clothes. Nadia leaves with an unspoken certainty that she's been ceremoniously dumped and blinks back her sorrow on the bus ride home.

But even as we pity Nadia's hurt feelings, we see her same capacity for cruelty in the film's opening scene in which she abandons a blind date in a barroom. Winterbottom shows how easily people cut themselves off from one another and justify their own selfish actions from the long-standing battle lines of Eileen and Bill (Jack Shepherd) to the fresh alienation of Molly and her husband, who quits his job on the eve of their baby's birth.

Winterbottom links much of the parallel action in Wonderland in a lyrical way to tease out thematic links. Jack, left in his father's lad-ish, drunken care for a father-son weekend, wanders off to the fairgrounds at the Bonfire Night Festival, taking himself on an outing his drunk father won't. As a small figure in the darkness, Jack wanders the grounds, and watches the fireworks, the spinning rides, the chummy families. It's a scene that distills the loneliness hovering around so many other moments in Wonderland. In the meantime, in a hospital on the other side of London, Molly gives birth all alone after a row with her husband. And the same void of sadness and incompleteness in which Jack wanders is the same void into which Molly prepares to bring her firstborn. Winterbottom shows the bittersweet, double-edged sword of creation: the wonder of Jack at the carnival or Molly's baby's birth, but also the consuming emptiness.

Despite their connections, all the residents of Wonderland fumble about in an embryo of their own troubles. And yet, by the film's conclusion, Winterbottom has achieved a kind of grace by linking their lives into a web of emotional interconnection. Rather than hopelessly alienated, we see that these people are all needy or needed in some way. No matter how imperfect the world he depicts is, there are rays of hope: a father's love for his daughter, Molly's rush of protective love for her newborn daughter, reunions and reintroductions that suggest, even despite so much simple heartbreak, things get better over time. u