Wonderland

Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Before we get into it, a few of life's sorrowful inevitabilities: Friends will vanish, romantic love will deteriorate, family will freak and, sooner or later, the matrix will come to claim your soul. No, no, not that matrix -- not some silly, goopy sci-fi escape hatch -- but the big, real one, the one comprising countless people you either don't know or you merely think you know. On this particular land mass, the solo dive into the great pool of humanity might translate onto film as a Taxi Driver or an L.A. Confidential, with waves of mean urban paranoia and vengeance battering the hull of the psyche's intrepid vessel. Possibly worse, the plunge could also spiral into a woman-child phantasmagoria starring Meg Ryan or Whitney Houston. But across the pond...

Of course, nobody is ever going to accuse London of being an entirely pleasant and benevolent city (see Jack the Ripper, or Ken Loach when he's in town ... or that Buddy Holly musical that just won't die), but somehow the former Roman stronghold on the Thames has, especially in recent years, played host to all sorts of stories of hopeful reintegration. Take a look at the subtext of Anthony Minghella's Truly, Madly, Deeply, or Mike Leigh's Career Girls, or Jasmin Dizdar's Beautiful People, and you'll perceive a metropolis functioning not as an acid bath but as a fertile petri dish. Whatever the variables -- sensible transportation, deeper history, freer-flowing alcohol, friendlier cops -- old Londinium seems, at least in cinema (setting aside Guy Ritchie's loudmouthed Lock, Stock piffle), to be nurturing a quiet revolution.

Despite a subtly scintillating cast of characters played with pitch-perfect verve, London -- in this case, working-class, unpretentious South London -- is the main character of Michael Winterbottom's gritty yet kindly Wonderland. Navigating the labyrinthine streets and suburbs charted in Laurence Coriat's debut screenplay (which evolved under the title Snarl Up and hasn't lost that attitude), Winterbottom boldly takes us precisely where we've gone before -- to the awkward in-between stages of friendship, romance and family. The difference here is that he doesn't play the discomfort and confusion for excessive laughs or for heavy-handed drama (even the obligatory lost-child sequence feels organic and, somewhat sadly, perfectly natural). Instead, he lets us wander among the proles, forming our own conclusions, with a vérité perspective looming somewhere between adoration and shaky-cam voyeurism. (Does it meet the criteria of Dogme 95? Oh, fuck off.)

During an exhilaratingly chilly November weekend, as the excitement of "Bonfire Night" celebrations permeates the city, a loveless middle-aged couple, Eileen and Bill (Kika Markham and Jack Shepherd), find that their lives and those of their brood are rapidly transforming. While their happy-go-lucky son, Darren (Enzo Cilenti), maintains his distance from his toxic parents, seeking freedom from their hellish torpor in flings and travel, their three daughters orbit a bit closer to their origins. Debbie (Shirley Henderson) is a lusty, chain-smoking hairdresser prone to acting out her appetites even while raising her adventure-seeking 10-year-old son Jack (Peter Marfleet) and dodging her reforming yobbo ex, Dan (Ian Hart). Molly (Molly Parker) is a bit more conservative, hoping just to make sense of her relationship with her freshly unemployed husband, Eddie (John Simm), while carrying their baby to term. The film's spiritual center is Nadia (Gina McKee), a greasy-spoon waitress who haplessly submits singles ads until she meets a deceptively clear winner called Tim (Stuart Townsend).

Yes, you may argue, but what separates this from bad (or even good) soap opera? Somehow it's the tone, the style, the overall humanity of the piece and, quite possibly, its very vague agenda. Rather than an hour-and-a-half of Hugh and Julia mooning (which, come to think of it, might be quite charming), we get a loose network of friends and neighbors who really aren't sure what they want or how to get it. Whereas under the stern auspices of Hollywood structure this meandering would provoke nausea (and we'd all have to endure a lecture by Robert Towne or, shudder, teacher Syd Field), Winterbottom blithely sidesteps our narrative expectations by employing source lights, "real" extras and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt's 16mm versatility. The result is a bit like easygoing Altman, or Solondz without being pathetic. It's spirited, invigorating, and refreshing.

Such definitions may come as a surprise when one considers that this is the director who brought us the disparate Welcome to Sarajevo and Jude, but Wonderland seeks to be neither a provocative political mixed bag (like the former) nor a devastating blow to the heart (like the latter). Instead, while confidently mired in obsessions of mediocrity (football matches, pubs, cheaply decorated flats), the movie sensitively graphs the erratic trajectory of the human spirit, from ashes, to a mild hop, to level progress, back to ashes, with some occasional soaring. The striking graininess of the film stock, the near-documentary style of the setups and Michael Nyman's attentive score add up to a relatable and ultimately hopeful experience.

Unhampered -- in fact, probably somewhat freed -- by the production's rather unusual technical limitations, the performances here are both naturalistic and rousingly strong. As the elder unhappy couple, Markham and Shepherd exude good intentions gone awry, especially when he's slow-dancing with the neighbor or she's eliminating the neighbor's dog's noisy bark. Perhaps reflecting their days of miserable youthful folly, Henderson (the brittle siren in Topsy-Turvy) and Hart (brilliant as John Lennon in Back Beat) stumble like professionals. As the slightly more stable sisters, Parker and McKee shake through their own obstacle courses with grace.

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