As expected, though I’m certain I’ve seen this before, when I was way too young to appreciate it (we’re possibly even talking single digits, I think my grandma saw it was about Alice or something and put it on, lol, god bless her), this viewing, with all I know now that I didn’t know then, was far more rewarding. Considering even without that knowledge for most of my life it’s managed to haunt me all these years anyway, and I’ve long intended to watch it again, I think that alone speaks of how stunning a film it really is.
I guess there are three ways you could come to this movie that will profoundly affect the way you take it. Some will know the Alice story but nothing of its author, particularly of his attraction to little girls including Alice Liddell for whom he wrote it. Some will know the whole thing, and of that set of people there will be those who find the relationship between Dodgson/Carroll and Alice unsettling and those who find it as wonderful as wonderland itself.
If you’re in the first set, the movie will almost immediately come as a shock and it’s probably simply best to not recommend it – even if under normal circumstances the idea of a “relationship” developing between a young girl and a man who isn’t family doesn’t strike you as fearfully odd, the juxtaposition of that concept with one of the best-loved children’s stories, not to mention Ian Holm’s admittedly strange performance as Carroll, will probably be enough to tip you over.
If you’re of the second variety, and you long for the movie that “finally” depicts Carroll as the monster he “really was”, then for a while here you might think you’ve discovered the Holy Grail. Like I say, Ian Holm’s performance is very strange. He plays Carroll almost like the android in Alien, or more recently his character in From Hell – he gazes at Alice with seemingly empty eyes and he’s just not the kindly soul you’d ever expect to be so great with the little ones. For a good half hour at the start here I was cringing, thinking perhaps my memory of the movie wasn’t so hot afterall and I was about to witness just about the worst end to my “Alice” day imaginable, lol.
It amazes/saddens me that there’s a message on the movie’s IMDb message board that seems to paint our age in some way superior to the mid-Eighties in which this was produced because, if it were made today, Carroll would be painted as a paedophile monster simple and true. “In 1985,” they write, “you couldn’t do such things without getting into trouble.” Like, wow. Just wow. I’ve dreamt my whole life of the day when we all just saw the worst in things. No – they’ve got it the wrong way around – you couldn’t do this movie today without getting in trouble, that’s the sad thing. (It’s encouraging to note some of the other responses in that thread, though.) (Okay, I’ll admit: there’s Finding Neverland which does kind of address JM Barrie’s thing for little boys without ever going tabloid … but it’s somehow not the same …)
Anyway, consider me one who’s firmly in the latter set. And I’ve got to say, after that first half hour of fearing the worst about Holm’s portrayal of Carroll, etc, I really began to appreciate the obstacles the film makers had clearly thrown in their own way to their objective in the production. Nevermind “warts and all” here, both Carroll in Alice’s memory and Alice herself as an 80-year-old woman in New York are painted almost as nothing but warts at the start. And just as Carroll is seen through Alice’s eyes, writer Dennis Potter brings another character to New York with her, a young orphan called Lucy who seems to be in a wonderland of her own. We see the strangely cold and domineering Alice through her, as well as her interactions with the American entertainment industries.
Alice is first averse to “playing up” her history as “the real Alice” for the American press but this shifts when one reporter reveals she could make money from it. In these scenes we always see Lucy backed away not quite understanding how the Alice who demands the best of manners and etiquette from her and others seems to shift into this almost monstrous way of interacting with the strange world of dollars and cents etc. But like Alice in Wonderland declaring to the royal court, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” Lucy too eventually stands up for herself, telling Alice in the diner to, “Shut up, shut up,” and finally ends up romantically involved with the reporter. It’s an incredibly clever subplot.
Coral Browne is incredible as the elderly Alice. There’s a moment right at the start when the main reporter first invokes the name “Dreamchild” to her and you feel the memories beginning to flood back to her over her face, at once joyous yet painful and unwanted. On occasion she almost looks directly into the audience’s eyes, even at one point saying something about feeling as though someone walked over her grave begging the question, is that us, watching this fictionalized version of her? At another stage she comments to the reporter about, “that strange feeling, like what you’re about to say has already been said before …” The movie just connects in such a way on so many levels that are usually left untouched by even the best of films.
As the younger Alice in flashbacks, Amelia Shankley is equally astonishing. The first thing that struck me is how much she actually resembles the real Alice as photographed by Carroll – but the performance soon displaces that purely aesthetic response to her. I wasn’t impressed by her in the Cannon Movie Tales Red Riding Hood which came later, but this is one of the best young performances I’ve seen – and considering the character, that’s particularly important.
The Jim Henson Creature Shop provided puppets for the segments where Alice (sometimes old, sometimes young) re-encounters her old acquaintances from Wonderland such as the Mad Hatter, March Hare, Dormouse, and crucially the Caterpillar (“You are old, Mrs. Hargreaves …”) They’re most certainly not the wacky, comic versions you’ll find in most other adaptations – think more Meet the Feebles than the Muppets. The Mad Hatter looks like he has a skin disease, the March Hare like his teeth are rotting. It’s another obstacle to us and Alice understanding the love that was behind all this.
It’s a miracle, then, how in the end (for me at least: I would hope though that the same is true for a least some in the first and second sets of viewers described earlier) it all works in favour of stuffy old Alice and creepy old Dodgson. The final scenes, again, have Coral Browne almost looking directly into our eyes, quizzically, as if to say, “What do you think?” as she finds herself experiencing her most important memory – the camera cuts by a 180 angle to show that she’s looking at Dodgson on a day when she and her sisters (and her husband to be, Reginald Hargreaves) humiliated him. We see the young Alice almost immediately regret her laughter and moving over to Dodgson, hugging him and kissing him on the cheek. It’s just love, that’s all, the movie seems to say. And quite ingeniously and beautifully it says it too.