Monday, 8 March 2010

Alice Unbound: A Review

The Mad Hatter: Have I gone mad?
[Alice checks Hatter's temperature]
Alice Kingsley: I'm afraid so. You're entirely bonkers. But I'll tell you a secret. All the best people are.

Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" is an imaginative re-working of the elements of the Alice books by Lewis Carroll into a wonderfully rich fantasy for adults and children.

In the film, Alice is Alice Kingsley, the daughter of Charles Kingsley, whom I assume is a nod to the novelist who also wrote the fantasy classic "The Water Babies" (although in actual fact his daughter was Mary); Alice had a dream when a young child, always the same dream, which was of Wonderland.

We shift to fifteen years later, where Alice's father has died, and her mother is trying to make an arranged marriage to a revolting young lord. This is large country estate Jane Austen territory, where the only roles for a woman are that of wife or spinster, and we are shown both, as Alice's mother warns her that if she does not accept the marriage, she will end her days like her dotty aunt Imogene (Frances de la Tour).

At the proposal, in the arbour, in front of all the assembled multitude of aristocrats, she says she needs more time, and follows a fleetingly glimpsed figure that appears to be a white rabbit. There, she tumbles down a hole in the tree and enters Wonderland once more.

This Wonderland owes more to Alice Through the Looking Glass than Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It is a misty post-apocalyptic landscape, dominated by the Red Queen, and haunted by the return of the Jabberwock, the fire breathing monster which wrought the devastation in the first place.

Some characters come from Wonderland, notably the Cheshire cat and the Hatter's entourage, and the Blue Caterpillar, but the story is heavily influenced by the chess motif of Looking Glass.

Unlike the Alice books, which are a series of episodes, mostly unrelated, Burton has fashioned a narrative core, which is driven by a prophecy on a scroll; this denotes the coming of the "frabjous day" when Alice takes the Vorpal Sword and slays the Jabberwock. The illustration of this owes much to Tenniel's drawing of the poem, which curiously shows a figure which could in fact be Alice; the scroll enhances this drawing, but it is fundamentally the same.

At first, Alice is passive, meeting Tweedledum and Tweedledee (played wonderfully by Matt Lucas), the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), and is told she is not the right Alice. She tries to pinch herself to wake up, but there is no escape from this dream. The JubJub Bird swoops down, and she flees. Then the Bandersnatch chases her and she is driven to escape, ending up at the Hatter's table, where she meets the Hatter (played by Johnny Depp) who tells her of her destiny.

But the dominant Queen in Wonderland, the Red Queen/Queen of Hearts, played as a petulant and childish tyrant by Helena Bonham Carter, wants to stop the prophecy coming true, as it will end her reign, for she alone can unleash the Jabberwock. The Hatter helps her escape, but is himself captured by the Red Queen.

Throughout the story, the character of Alice develops, from a young woman who is at the mercy of the forced in this strange nightmarish land, to someone who can decide to take charge of her own destiny. This can be seen as a distorted mirror of the opening sequence, where the world of the aristocracy, full of its own pomp and formality, is an alien world to her. Similarly, the Red Queen's court of sycophants all wear prosthetic attachments to fit in with the bulbous head of the Red Queen, and yet these are disguises, masks that people wear, hiding who they are in the same way that the formal society into which she is being forced to marry is also a society of disguise. Wonderland is a distorted looking glass of the land above.

But her destiny does not lie in deciding to do as she wants; it is not a case of choosing among many options. Fundamentally, she is forced into a choice: to fight the Jabberwock, or to surrender to the Red Queen's wishes. There is no compromise possible, no escape.

The resolution comes on the "frabjous day", when Alice decides to fight, and there is a grand battle, with the Jabberwock finally unleashed, and defeated. And throughout, the caterpillar is commenting that while at first "she is "Not Yet Alice" ", she becomes "Nearly Alice", and she ends as "Now Alice after all".

When she returns from the hole, and scrambles out, it seems as if she has bumped her head and been dreaming, but the experience means she can now take charge of her life; she is no longer the passive girl that began the story, but can reject the trappings of a fundamentally empty and decadent society that she has outgrown, and head off to distant lands to complete her father's work.

Mia Wasikowska as Alice shines, and makes credible the transition between the passive Alice that begins the story, and the shining heroine at the climax. All the other parts are well played, but Johnny Depp is wonderful, as the Hatter, in parts tender, sad, haunted and eccentric, and completely sympathetic; the interplay between Wasikowska and Depp is delightful .

By fashioning a narrative, rather than being choppy and episodic as the book are, Tim Burton has allowed room for the main characters to be more than just one dimensional, and to bring their characters to life. The special effects are good, but the real expression of the emotions comes with the human characters, however bizarre their make-up and attire.

It is a film partly about finding identity, but not about "finding yourself" in the populist way of all the "self-help" books and courses do; instead, identity is not choosing but finding what your real purpose is, not choosing your destiny, but learning where it lies, and following that path. It is not about self-centered enlightenment, but true enlightenment in discovering where your future is to be.

But it is also a complex many layered film, a visual feast, a rich delight, which is not exhausted by one narrative thread - it is a tapestry of many colours; Tim Burton has wrought a myth, and words themselves can never do full justice to the power of the mythic.

Alice Kingsley: [from trailer] This is impossible.
The Mad Hatter: Only if you believe it is.


Anonymous said...

I read a Sunday papers review that hated it, only gave it 1 star out of 5.

How can you both be right? :)

TonyTheProf said...

Very easily. It depends on your expectations. If you are looking for a film that has a traditional and easy to follow format, you will be seriously disappointed by this film.

It has a narrative, but not a standard linear one, as you are given glimpses of the end before it comes. Everything leads in some form to that battle with the Jabberwock, and it is the future event that pulls the narrative together.