Wonderland (UK, 1999) **
Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Written by Laurence Coriat. Photography, Sean Bobbitt. Editing, Trevor Waite. Production design, Mark Tildesley. Music, Michael Nyman. Cast: Kika Markham (Eileen), Jack Shepherd (Bill), Enzo Cilenti (Darren), Shirley Henderson (Debbie), Ian Hart (Dan), Peter Marfleet (Jack), Gina McKee (Nadia), Stuart Townsend (Tim), Molly Parker (Molly), John Simm (Eddie), David Fahm (Franklin).et al. Produced by Michele Camarda and Andrew Eaton. US release by USA Films. In English without subtitles. 108 minutes.. R (language, sex). At the Art Theater.
Three sisters (pace Anton Chekhov) and their working-class South London milieu are the subject of a fictional cinema-verite (a contradiction in terms, but let it be) semi-plotless tale. There's Nadia who works in a coffee bar and is looking --through personals -- for a man with whom she'll have a relationship that may include --but would ideally go beyond -- a one-night stand. There's Molly who has a husband (common-law or official --it is never explained), Eddie. He has a dull job. She seems happy enough with him; both are rather joyfully expecting a baby very soon. There's Debbie, a promiscuous hairdresser who has a young son and is divorced (or separated) from rather loutish Dan.
Add to this the parents of the girls. Eileen and Bill. Their marriage is loveless --we get no explanations. The movie's documentation informs as that both parents are, and I quote, "hurt by the estrangement of their youngest child, Darren." But neither I nor the companion I watched the film with had caught anything about Darren, who, to make matters worse, is hardly on screen.
The daughters and their progenitors live each in their own place, all of which seem to be in the same area. The film covers its characters over a period of four days, indicated by screen titles.
"Wonderland" is essentially a slice-of-life movie which takes place in a limited area and over four days. It was photographed with hand-held (mostly or only, I cannot tell) super-16 mm. cameras, in available light, to gain mobility and unobtrusiveness, to allow for improvisations and easy changes, to give the movie a spontaneous, para-documentary look and feel. Then it was blown up to 35mm, which allows its projection in movie theaters.
There is often a purplish or other cast to the images. Audiences unfamiliar with 16mm film may justifiably think that the whole thing was shot on video. It was certainly shot without regard to American ears. The working-class British accents, though not as pronounced as in some other movies from the UK, are unclear and could use subtitles. In its effort to show life as it is rather than staged, the film also disdains other traditional clarities. Who is who and what to whom remains murky for a long time. It is only later that one understands that the three girls are sisters, foe example.
Among the oddities are speeches by Eddie, the very pregnant Molly's companion. More than once he is shown on some sort of bridge (or overpass?) speaking aloud to the unseen camera and microphone, which makes no sense. He is rehearsing what he will tell Molly, that is, that he quit (or lost?) his job and will look for another. But this, within a film that is keen on catching naturalness, is a most artificial process, a soliloquy-type situation, a la Hamlet --and Eddie is no Hamlet.
The various events take place in real locations, not studio sets. They include visits to Nadia's cafe, to a pub, fireworks watched by Debbie's son Jack, Jack's accident at the fireworks, the clinic where he is taken by the police and in which clinic Molly gives birth, etc. There's also the troubling fact that the girls' mother poisons a neighbor's dog whose barking kept her awake.
"Wonderland" does not judge, preach or moralize. It tells it the way it is. But structurally it is messy. And the unrelenting misery of the tribe is overkill. There must be better ways to keep you interested --if not deeply involved-- in the unhappiness of the characters. It does not help either that the musical score is over-the-top and irritating, the way it hammers sounds that are wrong for essentially simple people.
The performers are good at what they do but this does not suffice. Some of the players may be familiar to Britons or viewers with photographic memories. I only remembered Jack Shepherd (the father). And I was surprised to read that Kika Markham (the mother) had her first major role in Francois Truffaut's "Two English Girls" back in 1971.