Michael Winterbottom’s ironically titled “Wonderland” is a wonderfully acted and emotionally rewarding slice of London life in which the versatile director enters Mike Leigh territory with considerable success. Strong critical support will be essential if this Universal-Polygram release is to find the audience it deserves, but pic should perform reasonably well in niche outlets in major territories.
Winterbottom’s films have invariably been made in the widescreen format, and this one is no exception, allowing for an expansiveness unusual for this kind of intimate drama. The director also employs devices that, in other hands, can be supremely irritating — the entire film is shot with a hand-held camera, only available light is used, and there is the occasional scene in which events are speeded up or slowed down. But Winterbottom’s complete control over these devices ensures that, far from having a negative effect, they add to the intensely immediate feel of the material.
Laurence Coriat’s screenplay unfolds over four days in November, not the most beautiful time of year in London; the chilly, often rain-drenched streets of the city are the backdrop for an examination of a family in crisis. At the beginning of the film, the family connections aren’t spelled out, but gradually the links become clear as three sisters and their parents struggle to come to terms with the cards life has dealt them. It’s no accident that the story climaxes during Guy Fawkes Day celebrations, when the Brits remember a 17th century anarchist who failed in his attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill all the politicians therein.
Nadia (Gina McKee) works in a cafe and lives alone; she meets men via a dating agency, usually with disappointing results. During the four days, she meets Tim (Stuart Townsend) and goes to bed with him, but it’s immediately clear that to him she’s just another conquest. Nadia’s older sister, Debbie (Shirley Henderson), who works in a hairdressing salon, is separated from her oafish, frequently drunken husband, Dan (Ian Hart); their 11-year-old son, Jack (Peter Marfleet), lives with her.
Debbie seeks refuge from her loneliness in a series of fleeting sexual encounters, while Dan can hardly contain his anger (which manifests itself especially when he’s driving). Jack often finds himself abandoned by both parents, and the violence he watches on television and real-life encounters he witnesses testify to the emptiness of the world around him.
Molly (Molly Parker), the youngest sister, seems at first to be the happiest of the three. She’s nine months pregnant and her partner, Eddie (John Simm), has a good job selling kitchens. But without telling Molly, he quits his job, which he hates, with grand plans to become a professional chef; when Molly finds out, the couple argue and Eddie leaves.
The sisters’ parents, Eileen (Kika Markham) and Bill (Jack Shepherd), are unhappy as well. They desperately miss their son, Darren, who left the family home some time earlier — they have no idea where he is, and it’s his birthday. (Darren, played by Enzo Cilenti, is celebrating the occasion in a hotel with his sexy girlfriend, limned by Sarah-Jane Potts.) Eileen is being driven to the point of a nervous breakdown by noisy neighbors, while the sexually frustrated Bill, who has lost his job, drifts aimlessly.
As handled by Winterbottom, the lives of these basically sad people are not as bleak as might be supposed. The film is suffused with stoic humor and ends on a note of guarded optimism. These people may find life daunting, but they have the will and resilience to survive, and there’s no sense of defeat or despair. The birth of Molly’s baby — an emotionally powerful sequence — offers hope for a fresh start, as does Nadia’s encounter with Franklyn (David Fahm), a lonely black youth and neighbor of her parents, who has been her secret admirer.
Performances by the ensemble cast are just about flawless. McKee’s vulnerable Nadia, with her oddly unbecoming hairstyle and air of awkwardness, is a genuinely moving character. Henderson’s Debbie is equally impressive; her apparent cheerfulness masks the frustrations of being a single mother with an unreliable ex-husband. And Parker is achingly lovely as the pregnant woman terrified her partner, too, may not afford the stability she needs.
Pic was filmed on location and employed no extras, giving it a strong sense of reality. It was, therefore, a bold decision to use a typically attention-grabbing music score by Michael Nyman to accompany the slice-of-life material. The counterpoint created by the combination of the outfront music and the film’s pervasive realism brings an exciting edge to the material.
Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and focus puller Nic Lawson deserve considerable kudos for their impressive work, while editor Trevor Waite has seamlessly integrated the many and varied strands of this moving, impressive ensemble piece.