[Written for Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
Michael Winterbottom’s checkered career has been inconsistent at best, misdirected at worst. The stylistic chameleon practically remakes himself for each film, from the handsome but chilly restraint of the Thomas Hardy adaptation Jude to the hysterical explosion of sexual obsession in I Want You. The result is a career of fascinating failures driven by moments of pure cinematic passion.
In Wonderland, Winterbottom has found a script worthy of his passion. Writer Laurence Coriat mines the British social realist territory of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach — the travails of working class Brits kicking around their grimy cities — but leaves out the politics for a portrait of characters over the course of a long weekend, grasping for love in a bustling but indifferent world.
Thirtysomething single Nadia (heartbreakingly played by Gina McKee, late of Notting Hill) careens through the dating scene with one hopeless blind date after another. Single mom Debbie (Shirley Henderson, Topsy Turvy’s ingénue) is a mix of adolescent passion and emotional scar tissue. Molly (Molly Parker) is married, very pregnant, and on the edge of hysterics when she finds her husband Eddie (John Simm) has quit his soul-sucking salesman job. This seemingly random collection of characters is connected by ties revealed over the next hour, a needless gimmick that nonetheless emphasizes their loneliness, their desperation, and the offhanded insensitivity that families can so casually provide in place of support.
Shooting on the streets of South London with lightweight portable equipment, Winterbottom gets up close and personal with his cast, drawing sensitive, intense performances and capturing a nervous spontaneity that brings the script alive. Time-lapse photography captures their disconnection through crowded streets, transforming the jittery effects (which turns the mob into faceless blurs) into a heartbreaking portrait of aloneness in a crowd. Michael Nyman’s rhythmic, Philip Glass–inflected music underscores the feeling with loving empathy.
While there’s little new or surprising in the intertwining stories, Winterbottom’s intimacy makes their ache and sadness all the more palpable and invests the script’s lucky coincidences with a dramatic power that overcomes the clichés.
More importantly, Winterbottom transforms the fog of melancholy into a celebration of hope, of chance, and the promise of possibility in a new day. His lonely group of family, friends, and lovers nurture a spark that, when things look their worst, flashes a hope of better things to come. It may be eyes catching each other across a room, a hug between sisters, a touching of hands, but it’s enough to put the sense of wonder into this grimy South London Wonderland, if only for a moment.