[Screen It]

(2000) (Gina McKee, Molly Parker) (R)

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Drama: Various members of a family deal with varying changes in their relationships with one another and others in their lives.
As noisy Bonfire Night celebrations continue over a long autumnal weekend in London, various members of a large family get on with their everyday lives. Bill (JACK SHEPHERD) and Eileen (KIKA MARKHAM) are the middle-aged parents stranded in a loveless marriage. Their daughter Debbie (SHIRLEY HENDERSON) is a hairdresser who's raising her son, Jack (PETER MARFLEET), and is separated from her worthless husband, Dan (IAN HART).

Her sister, Nadia (GINA MCKEE), is a café waitress who's searching for love and going on many blind dates stemming from her ad in the personals, while their other sister, Molly (MOLLY PARKER), is nine months pregnant and dealing with the baby's father, Eddie (JOHN SIMM), who's suddenly decided to quit his job. Then there's their brother, Darren (ENZO CILENTI), whose estrangement from his parents has everyone concerned.

As the weekend progresses, the various family members must come to grips with newfound realizations about themselves, as well as their relationships with family member and others.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that I go to the movies to see stories that are out of the ordinary in some way and feature characters who will make me laugh, cry, cringe with terror, get my adrenaline pumping or elicit any number of other emotions or visceral responses. It's not that every film has to be exciting or larger than life in whatever story it's trying to tell, but what I don't usually need to see is a depressing and ultimately boring story filled with miserable, depressed and lonely characters.

While most of that is what fuels daytime TV soap operas and "entertains" their viewers, I don't see much of a point in such stories and their characters crossing over to the big screen. That is, of course, unless everything about the production - the writing, directing and performances -- is top-notch in both conception and execution, where the end result is that you feel different in some fashion after experiencing the film.

Unfortunately, director Michael Winterbottom's latest effort, "Wonderland," isn't one of those films, and it certainly didn't take long for my cinematic radar to detect that fact. A slow moving, laborious and ultimately unsatisfying look at a dysfunctional family consisting of mostly unhappy and unfulfilled people, this decidedly low budget looking film doesn't really manage to offer the viewer a great deal for their nearly two hour commitment of time and effort involved in watching it.

That said, there undoubtedly will be those who get or read more into/from the story and its characters than is really present, and will see the titular "wonderland" - expressed in a character's observation during the film's waning moments - as many things. Most obvious will be the parallels between Lewis Carroll's Alice and the summation of the journeys this film's characters take in exploring the tenuous and occasionally bizarre world of relationships.

Well, that's all fine and dandy, but the rest of us will probably wish that Winterbottom ("Welcome to Sarajevo," "Jude") and screenwriter Laurence Coriat (who makes her feature film debut) had infused the story with something extra to make it more appealing and/or palatable to the average moviegoer.

Shot in an annoying cinéma vérité style (that's supposed to exude unbiased realism, something along the lines of a documentary), the film features a grainy look (thanks to being shot on 16mm film and then blown up to 35mm), jumpy, handheld camera work and rough jump cuts, along with occasional time-lapse photography.

As annoying as all of that collectively turns out to be, it becomes worse when it does nothing to enhance the story that unfolds over four days and features various members of one family attempting to make sense of their lives, relationships and family dynamics. Of course, that makes the story sound infinitely more interesting and complex than it really is. Although the characters end up growing a bit from their journey and the ending offers some hope that there might be a marginally better future for some of them, the film is nonetheless still a very somber and slow-moving affair.

That said, and perhaps due to the sheer repetition of such dreary emotive elements and our hope that something good might happen to the involved characters to make both their lives and our experience of watching them more enjoyable, the film actually manages to become a bit interesting as it unfolds. That said, I'm not talking about something that will completely engross viewers or keep them glued to their seats due to the fear of missing something as the plot unfolds.

No, it's more akin to getting sucked into staring at the aftermath of a car accident or watching a soap opera where the constant melodrama bludgeons one's better senses to look away and lowers the defenses against the somewhat hypnotic pathos that's constantly emitted from the production. Fortunately, the cast members' performances don't entirely fall into that same melodramatic description, and are actually what make the film easier to watch, at least to some degree.

The actresses embodying the three sisters -- Gina McKee ("Notting Hill," "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc"), Molly Parker ("Sunshine," "The Five Senses") and Shirley Henderson ("Topsy-Turvy," "Trainspotting") - all deliver strong and credible performances. The same holds true for Ian Hart ("The Englishman Who Went up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain," "Michael Collins") as one of their ne'er-do-well husbands, and Kika Markham ("Outland," "Two English Girls") and Jack Shepherd ("Twenty-one," the BBC series "Wycliffe") as the estranged, but still married parents.

It's just unfortunate that the script doesn't match the performances stemming from it. While it has all of the necessary melodramatic elements and the appropriate "art house" look and feel to appease viewers who fall into either or both of those camps, the end result isn't particularly a satisfying or uplifting experience. Although not every film has to meet those criteria and one can admire the credible performances contained within this one, they alone simply can't sustain the film. As such, "Wonderland" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed August 4, 2000 / Posted August 11, 2000

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