November 26, 2012

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.


April 25, 2012

In a small town in a bucolic patch of Yorkshire countryside, a group of friends is enjoying a dinner party. The only note of strangeness in the convivial, civilized dinner is the moodiness of one young man, who seems taken with his own thoughts.

The next day, the young man returns to the house and greets the owner. He reveals that he had not been invited by her friends to the dinner party—as she had assumed, since she had never seen him before; in fact, he knew no one there and simply bluffed his way into the house. While she is pondering the absurdity of this situation, he pulls a revolver out of his pocket, puts the barrel in his mouth, and pulls the trigger.

These are among the opening scenes of Wetherby, and the film will proceed with a complex examination of how this apparently inexplicable act came to pass. You’ve got to admit, it’s a grabby and intriguing idea; but writer-director David Hare has much more on his mind than some kind of murder mystery.

He’s after bigger fish. As with his play and movie Plenty, Hare’s concerns include the nervous spaces between people and (his favorite theme) the emotional paralysis of English people under the weight of too much civilization. Luckily for Hare, he seems to have a sense of how to make movies (this is his first directed feature), otherwise his tackling of these big issues and themes could have been clunky and awkward.

Even so, he has a tendency toward obviousness in some of his dialogue, as though the audience couldn’t catch what he was getting at otherwise.

But I list these cavils in order to better praise Wetherby, which strikes me as one of the most original films of the year. If everything in the film doesn’t go as smoothly as it might have, it’s nevertheless a scintillating experience.

Hare traces the events surrounding the suicide by going back and forth in time—from the arrival of the young stranger (Tim McInnerny), to the dinner party again, to the present, in which the schoolteacher (Vanessa Redgrave) in whose house he killed himself is trying to sort out the mystery. She is visited by a listless girl (Suzanna Hamilton) who knew the stranger at school, and by a police detective (Stuart Wilson) whose own life is not going so well.

There are also flashbacks to Redgrave’s 20-years-past love affair, which becomes more relevant as the film progresses (she is played in the flashbacks by Joely Richardson, the real-life daughter of Vanessa Redgrave). This failed romance has haunted the character ever since, and given her a common bond with the mysterious stranger: loneliness.

Hare draws all this with a delicate brush, and the film is as good to look at as it is to think about. Vanessa Redgrave is superb; she doesn’t hit a wrong note in the entire performance. Ian Holm, as usual, gives fine support, and Wilson is subtle in the unexpectedly touching role of the police officer.

The most disquieting performance is given by Tim McInnerny, in his first film role. His character, the suicide, is described as having “a blankness—a disfiguring blankness” that sums up his place in the world. McInnerny gives this character, through his acting abilities and through his unusual looks, a disturbing normalcy that sets the eerie tone for the rest of the movie.

First published in the Herald, October 22, 1985

An opening sequence that certainly puts its hooks into you. Hare keeps his hand in with movies, and directed that unsettling adaptation of The Designated Mourner.

Another Woman

December 7, 2011

Yes, the latest Woody Allen movie is one of his serious outings. No, it’s not as pregnant with (to use on old Allenism) heaviosity as Woody’s previous film, September. In fact, the new one, Another Woman, goes a long way toward erasing the memory of the studied, constricted seriousness of September.

Another Woman is narrated by its main character, a historian, Marion (Gena Rowlands), who is on sabbatical from her teaching position to write a new book. She takes a writing office in downtown Manhattan, which happens to be next door to a psychiatrist’s office. As the walls are thin, she can overhear voices, and one afternoon she begins to listen to the story of a profoundly unhappy woman (Mia Farrow).

This causes Marion to reflect on her own life, which, the more she examines it, turns out to be rife with disappointment. This is a fascinating, and as it turns out, quite beautiful narrative device; at one point Marion actually runs into the unhappy patient and buys her supper, which leads to an important discovery. And, throughout, Marion’s narration on the soundtrack is like her own voice coming from the analyst’s couch, available for us to overhear.

Allen skips around in time, to show us Marion’s life as a promising child, her affair as a college student with a professor (Philip Bosco), a chance encounter with an old friend (Sandy Dennis) who brings up some unpleasant memories, and even into a fantasy sequence in which Marion plays scenes from her life on a stage.

At the center of her ruminations is her affair with a writer (Gene Hackman), which happened just before she entered into marriage with a detached and emotionally arid man (Ian Holm). The Hackman character represents the one great regret of her past, a promise of a life richer than the one she is living now. (He is in only three or four scenes, else Gene Hackman’s superb, heartbreaking performance would be an Oscar winner.)

Except for Hackman, and Holm’s teenage daughter, played by Martha Plimpton, the characters in Another Woman wander through an emotional desert, emphasized by the sameness of Santo Loquasto’s production design; everything is in dry shades of beige and khaki.

The film was photographed by Ingmar Bergman’s cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, and Allen has been accused of borrowing some of his ambitions and themes from Bergman’s films. In the New Republic, Stanley Kauffman actually called it plagiarism. That’s a bit much, but I do think that Another Woman is a bit shy (at less than 90 minutes) on background and detail; Allen asks us to accept a lot of faith. He frequently has his characters tell us his themes, rather than letting them emerge through action and behavior.

But no other American director is making movies quite like Woody Allen’s these days, movies that are deliberately about the way intelligent, thinking people talk and act, about the way they find each other and betray each other and love each other. Another Woman is not his best, but it has moments that are as tender as anything seen this year.

First published in the Herald, November 27, 1988

Another draft of this and Allen might have had an absolute gem instead of a very good picture. There are a handful of Woodys that are flawed but good enough to bear repeat viewing, which provide an opportunity to say: this is why Allen is a good director, and this is how he falls short of the next rung. Another Woman is one of those.