When Jonathan Miller approached his projected film, for the BBC, of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, he advertised to find his Alice. Only one photograph that was sent to him encouraged an interview; there would be no extensive auditions such as producer Selznick conducted to find the perfect Scarlett O’Hara. What is it that Anne-Marie Mallik brought to the table? At 13, she might appear long in the tooth; Carroll’s Alice was nowhere near puberty. Ah, but she was a solemn child, and Miller felt that Carroll’s Alice possessed solemnity on two scores: Victorian children, according to Miller, were encouraged to reign in their spirits, to be seen but not heard. Moreover, “adults” everywhere around Alice are worrying and scurrying—and approaching her own adulthood, and carefully “taking in the scene,” Mallik’s Alice can imagine on the basis of such evidence what she herself will soon become: harried and worried. Already life’s possibilities seem to be dwindling for her. Poet William Wordsworth, whose Intimations of Immortality Ode this Alice reads lines from at the beginning and the end of the film, identifies childhood with transcendent imagination; but then the “prison-house” descends on the former child, restricting her, stifling her. “It is not now as it hath been of yore; —/ Turn wheresoe’er I may,/ By night or day,/ The things which I have seen I now can see no more.” Adulthood, then, is the loss of childhood—the loss of visionary wonder. Wordsworth’s “spots of Time” become moody, gloomy blurs: blot-outs. Mallik’s Alice can see what’s coming for her.
One languorous summer’s day, outdoors with her sister, Alice stretches out on the grass, falls asleep and dreams; she pursues a White Rabbit down a rabbit-hole. Miller’s episodic film pursues the structure of dream. His most notable achievement is that Alice’s enchanted dream is poised in the direction of disenchantment; dream is turning to nightmare, where even Alice’s own decapitation is possible: symbolically, imminent reality. Somehow, the discussion of beheading the Cheshire Cat, where the cat is being played by an actual cat, confirms and underscores Alice’s encroaching fate as a grown-up. Indeed, the fact that adult characters are bereft of animal masks and makeup in this version makes this fate toward which Alice is headed seem all the more real and inevitable. Here, waking up, which Miller precedes with faces swollen with distortion through quick cuts and too-close proximity to the camera, doesn’t dissolve and disperse the “dream,” freeing Alice from its fearful horrors, but identifies reality as the final stage of the dream.
Miller’s collaborator for the film’s extraordinary visual aspect is his cinematographer, Dick Bush. Miller himself selected black and white as the most expressive means for conveying the requisite dreaminess, and the two artists based the film’s appearance on the budding artistry of Victorian photography, to which they added, Miller explains on the commentary track of the film’s DVD, a depth of field that results in startling uses of deep focus. Gorgeous imagery hints at hidden and barely hidden grotesqueness: not born of a child’s imagination but of a child’s quiet observation of the grownup world. Miller’s film makes the dream that Alice has seem familiar even to her. It is disturbingly, distressingly familiar. What disturbs Alice is the loss of childhood; she is recalling yet again, the sense runs, the lost dream, which itself, now, contains its own loss. The end of the dream has become part of the dream. We may say—although perhaps Miller himself won’t like this—that Miller has projected onto his Alice his even more acute sense of the loss of childhood and of its visionary wonder. Alice has become his own child—his child-self: the receptacle of his increasing mortal awareness.
While the sensational, sentimental Tim Burton made the trashiest Alice in Wonderland (2010) imaginable, Miller has made a work of art—not nearly so great a work as Lewis Carroll penned, but something haunted and melancholy, bordering on elegy, as reality pitilessly aims itself at us.
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