Some directors find a niche and flourish there, occasionally making a foray into another genre. For example, Wes Craven achieved success as a horror filmmaker with such efforts as A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET but managed to impress to a lesser degree with the Meryl Streep vehicle MUSIC FROM THE HEART. Other helmers move from genre to genre with ease and constantly surprise as they stretch their talents. Michael Winterbottom arguably falls into the latter category. As a director, he has given audiences everything from the sorely overlooked and underrated period adaptation JUDE, which featured three superb central performances from Christopher Eccleston, Kate Winslet and Rachel Griffiths, the moving contemporary war drama WELCOME TO SARAJEVO to the chamber romance GO NOW. In a Winterbottom film, there are several things upon which you can count: a strong visual sense, wonderful performances and characters attempting to find liberation and/or salvation. WONDERLAND, a drama-comedy set in contemporary London is no exception.
By employing the now familiar interconnected narrative structure, Winterbottom and screenwriter Laurence Coriat examine one family over the course of a November weekend when Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated. The principal characters are Nadia (Gina McKee), a waitress seeking love via personal ads; Debbie (Shirley Henderson), a struggling single mother who earns her keep as a hairdresser; and Molly (Molly Parker), very pregnant and seemingly settled into domestic bliss with her husband (John Simm) who sells kitchen furnishings. We also are introduced to two other couples: newlyweds on their honeymoon (Enzo Cilenti and Sarah-Jane Potts) and an older pair whose relationship has soured (Jack Shepherd and Kika Markham). Gradually the familial connections become apparent: Nadia, Debbie and Molly are sisters, the groom is their estranged brother and the bitter older duo are their parents. Over the course of the three days, the main characters interact and attempt to connect in human terms.
Winterbottom and his director of photography Sean Bobbit employed hand-held cameras and shot in available light so the film has an almost documentary feel to it. Perhaps because this technique has been employed in several films released contemporaneously (i.e., BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE), the driving mechanism of the film seems somewhat cliché yet the talented cast works to overcome this obstacle. Each of the actors delivers a strong performance (and that also includes Ian Hart as Henderson's ne'er-do-well ex-husband and Stuart Townsend as a slick date of Nadia's). McKee, despite a series of unflattering hairstyles, projects the requisite vulnerability while Parker virtually glows as a self-satisfied woman who discovers her world isn't as secure as she believed. Henderson has a tendency to garble some of her lines but she ultimately comes through as a tough-on-the-surface woman having difficulties coping with single motherhood. Markham is majestic as their mother, whose disappointments in life have poisoned her marriage and her relationships with her children. While the men tend to be cads or doormats, they are no less impressively captured by Shepherd (as the equally disillusioned husband and father), Simm, who demonstrates great range and versatility and the always exemplary Hart.
WONDERLAND may feel a bit warmed-over but it is a fine achievement nonetheless. These Londoners may be living lives tinged with despair, yet there is guarded hope that filters through. Fueled by humor and the possibilities embodied in a newborn, they will persevere.
Rating: B+ Running time: 108 mins. MPAA Rating: R for some strong sexuality, and for language