The Seasoned Ticket #40

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

Michael Winterbottom has a new film out this week, The Wedding Guest, starring Dev Patel. I’ve always taken interest in Winterbottom’s career, in part because he’s so prolific—I admire filmmakers who can crank projects out, rather than keep themselves pure for a masterpiece every five years. (Not that there’s anything wrong with the Alfonso Cuarons of the world.)

I mentioned this when I interviewed Winterbottom twenty years ago—he was already working at a rapid pace by contemporary standards—and we cited Fassbinder as an exemplar of the prolific artist. I said something like “as long as you don’t take him too closely as a model,” and Winterbottom looked confused for a moment, as though I’d knocked Fassbinder somehow. But I just meant the end of his frantic life.

I’ve reviewed a lot of Winterbottom’s films over the years, and delight in his recent Trip comedies with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Here’s a piece on his 1999 film Wonderland, a well-acted drama with a beautiful music score by Michael Nyman—music evocatively re-used, as it happens, in the Trip films.

 

Wonderland

There must be a way of describing Wonderland so that it doesn’t sound like a chore to sit through. This is a film about the members of a depressed family from economically-challenged South London, whose romantic encounters over the course of a long weekend run to disappointment and melancholy.

All right, that was not the way to describe it, since now you’re seeing a huge kitchen sink rise in front of your eyes. And while Wonderland does spring from the kind of socially concerned realism practiced by Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, it also soars into its own special lyrical mode. This is a beautiful, surprisingly uplifting movie, made by someone who actually understands people.

The film focuses on three adult sisters, although a brother passes through on his own separate trajectory. They are the children of a couple whose marital misery is deeply ritualized; husband and wife are played by Jack Shepherd and Kika Markham, an actress who hasn’t been seen much in the 25 years since her unforgettable performance in Truffaut’s masterpiece Two English Girls.

The three English girls are a waitress, Nadia (Gina McKee), whose luck at personal ads is very poor; a hairdresser, Debbie (Shirley Henderson, recently stunning in Topsy-Turvy), whose son is a point of contention with her ex-husband (Ian Hart); and a teacher, Molly (Molly Parker), very pregnant and very unsympathetic to the career angst of her husband (John Simm, from Human Traffic).

The attempted couplings of these folks are both subtle and raw. We sense early on that the central character is somehow Nadia, the rather deadpan waitress, who screws a guy she meets through the personals and is immediately eased out the door of his apartment. She also must put up with her sister’s obnoxious—but not really unsympathetic—ex, who answers one of Nadia’s personal ads without revealing his identity. He’s simply got his own jolly, lonely way of reaching out—another terrific little performance by Ian Hart. At this point I should admit that, while the other sisters are wonderfully played, the stunning Gina McKee vaults directly into the pantheon of most valuable women in current cinema. Long-faced and big-eyed, McKee (who was in Notting Hill and Croupier) has the sort of soulful, reflective manner that effortlessly grabs your heart.

Director Michael Winterbottom, whose breakneck pace of production has resulted in one of the more interesting careers of Nineties movies, treads exactly in the footsteps of his characters. No political preaching, no behavioral scoffing, just a worldly-wise attempt to portray ordinary heartbreak. Winterbottom’s masterstrokes are the musical punctuation points, which come in old-fashioned bursts provided by Michael Nyman (at least, this is as old-fashioned as Michael Nyman’s music gets). These passages generally accompany montages of London, sometimes at time-lapse speed, and give a lyrical counterpoint to the sometimes dreary lives on display. In the end, the title Wonderland turns out to be not ironic at all.

 

Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

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