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Sunday, March 14, 2010

ALICE IN WONDERLAND (BBC-TV, 1966) -- DVD review by porfle

A reimagining--or rather, unimagining--of Lewis Carroll's fantasy masterpiece, the 1966 TV production of ALICE IN WONDERLAND seems to be one of the most strangely ill-conceived artifacts ever to emerge from the BBC. While Carroll's story is designed to appeal to both children and adults, this version is about as kid-friendly as an Ingmar Bergman movie.

It starts out very nicely with Alice and her sister being properly dressed by their nurse for a lovely walk in the countryside. Sitting amidst the swaying grass to soak up some sun, the sister quietly reads as Alice succumbs to sleep. When she awakens, she's alone--until she spots a smartly-dressed figure checking his watch and hurrying along as though late. The White Rabbit, you ask? Nope, it's Wilfrid Brambell, who played Paul McCartney's very clean grandfather in A HARD DAY'S NIGHT. He's called "The White Rabbit", but we're given no indication as to why. It's here we discover that one of the conceits of this production is that none of the actors portraying non-human characters are costumed to resemble them. Why? I don't know...go ask Alice, I guess.

Anyway, Alice follows him into a drainage pipe that leads her into a large, airy building with white drapes billowing over tall windows. As she creeps down its spacious corridors we enjoy the only truly atmospheric part of her adventure. The familiar routine with Alice changing her size in order to fit through the doorway into Wonderland is also well-handled. It's here, though, that Alice begins to encounter the largely uninteresting weirdos that inhabit this joyless world. An uninspired jab at organized religion has them flocking like chickens after a spaced-out priest while spastically crossing themselves. Like much of the film, it reduces Carroll's droll satire to bug-eyed burlesque.

Familiar vignettes from the book are stocked with name actors either having a lark or showing up for the paycheck. The celebrated tea party features Peter Cook hamming it up as the Mad Hatter and Michael Gough portraying the March Hare as some middle-aged British guy, which is rather depressing. Peter Sellers makes scant impression as the King of Hearts, while Sir John Gielgud's Mock Turtle and Malcolm Muggeridge's Gryphon mutter and mince along the seashore as though they'd missed their meds. (Only Leo McKern as the Duchess manages to create a truly amusing character.) I can understand director Jonathan Miller's intent to emphasize the nightmarish qualities of the story, but whatever delight is inherent in the original text itself is largely overcome by the utter joylessness and willfully obtuse direction of these scenes.

Pretty young Anne-Marie Mallik may have been a good actress but you wouldn't know it from this, since she's been directed to respond to everything going on around her by reciting her lines in a petulant monotone while staring off expressionless into space. Her Alice is just as inscrutably peculiar as any of the creatures she meets on her listless sojourn through pastoral settings and dreary interiors that could hardly be described as a "wonderland" of any sort. She seems, in fact, to have wandered onto the grounds of an insane asylum, or perhaps to have just been committed to it herself.

The pop sensibilities of the mid-60s era seem to have had an unfortunate influence here--it's as though someone noticed what a "trip" Carroll's story was and thought it would be interesting to play it up as a mystical mind-trip (complete with a droning sitar score by Ravi Shankar), which dates this adaptation badly. Seeing groups of oddly-dressed people prancing about the English countryside like aimlessly frivolous fools reminded me of similar scenes in the Beatles' misguided MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR. It wouldn't surprise me if this served as one of the inspirations for that failed effort in mindless psychedelia.

The DVD from BBC Warner is in 4.3 fullscreen and original mono, with English subtitles. Besides a brief photo gallery, a look at Ravi Shankar scoring the film, and a director's commentary, the extras menu features two very good reasons for seeking out this DVD. One is the original 1903 silent version of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, a fascinating eight-minute peek back at an ancient film whose entrancing images cling desperately to the ravaged nitrate print which seems to deteriorate as we're watching it. The second is Dennis Potter's excellent feature-length biopic of Lewis Carroll, ALICE (1965), which explores the stammering, painfully odd young writer's obsession with the young Alice Liddell and boasts a brilliant performance by George Baker.

Just as it's drained of color by the moody, almost noirish black-and-white 35mm film photography (which I liked very much), this ALICE IN WONDERLAND adaptation is almost entirely drained of magic as well. In its place is a dreary art-film opaqueness that ill serves Lewis Carroll's enchanting prose by resembling an uneasy cross between Monty Python and Carl Dreyer.


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