Dreamchild

The year is 1932, and an 80-year-old woman named Alice Hargreaves is sailing from England for America. This woman, who appears ordinary, is not so at all; for she is the Alice, the Alice who long ago became the central figure for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

This is how we first meet her in Dreamchild. As she prepares to receive an honor from Columbia University, marking the centenary of Carroll’s birth, she reflects upon a languid summer, decades earlier. As a 10-year-old girl, she was the sounding board for the Rev. Charles Dodgson (Carroll’s real name) and his intricate, playful fantasies.

The film jumps between 1932, that childhood remembrance, and a few scenes from Carroll’s work, which come to life complete with the Mad Hatter, March Hare, Mock Turtle, and Gryphon.

The central idea of Dennis Potter’s script is that Dodgson’s repressed sexual appetite was the springboard for his literary flights of fancy. As the film progresses, Potter and director Gavin Millar suggest that Dodgson, a shy stutterer, had an indecent love for little Alice, and that—being a wholly decent man—he sublimated his passion, which ultimately found its voice in his writing.

This idea is delicately forwarded throughout the film, mostly in looks and glances. We’re never quite sure whether Dodgson is a sicko with a Lolita complex or whether he innocently likes children.

There’s a hint that the elderly Alice is thinking about all this, and perhaps understanding the implications of Dodgson’s attentions, for the first time. Maybe this explains why, when we first see her, she is hard-edged and cranky; like a woman trying to hide a secret from herself.

The appearances by Carroll’s characters—as splendidly created by Jim Henson’s puppet crew after the original John Tenniel drawings—may be considered chorus-like presences, helping this Alice, like the fictional one, on her roundabout way to finding out the truth.

Potter has explored his themes before; the coexistence of reality and artifice in Pennies from Heaven, and sexual repression in Brimstone and Treacle. But he brings things together here in a way that never seems schematic or boring.

And his cause is helped by three wonderful performances: Coral Browne, stiff but perhaps still vulnerable as the older Alice; Ian Holm, as the loving but controlled Dodgson; and Amelia Shankley, a fresh and spontaneous presence in her film debut, as little Alice.

The romantic subplot between Alice’s nurse (Nicola Cowper) and an American newspaperman (Peter Gallagher) may not quite be strong enough to fit into this puzzle; and it would have been terrific to have seen some more of Carroll’s creatures given life. But there is much that is special about Dreamchild, and it makes an intriguing companion piece to Carroll’s enduring work.

First published in the Herald, December 19, 1985

A brilliant idea for a Dennis Potter project, and a film I’d like to see again. I recall that, while Jim Henson’s puppets are always superb, the creatures here are particularly haunting, not just in their design but in their presence, somehow.

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