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Friday, Sept. 1, 2000


London calling

"Wonderland" is a curious title for an avowedly realist film seeking to reflect the pulse of a modern city and the daily hopes and heartbreaks of the sort of people you pass on the street every day. But like that fantastic world down the rabbit hole of Lewis Carroll's stories, the London we glimpse in "Wonderland" is a world of topsy-turvy, where nothing seems to proceed according to rhyme or reason.

Take Dan (played by the always excellent Ian Hart), who picks up his 11-year-old son Jack (Peter Marfleet) from his ex-wife Debbie (Shirley Henderson, who you may recognize from "Trainspotting") for a weekend of father-son bonding. Dan still loves his ex-wife and desires her affection, so why -- in a rational world -- would he hit her up again for a loan? In the same vein, Dan truly seems to care for his son, so why does he leave Jack alone for most of the weekend as he gets tanked up on lager?

Similarly bewildering is Debbie's sister, a funky Soho cafe waitress named Nadia (Gine McKee); she's independent, kind and cute -- so why does her latest blind date want to push her out the door as soon as he's slept with her? Why can't she find a decent guy like her other sister Molly (Molly Parker, "Kissed")? Of course what Molly, who's expecting her first child, doesn't know is that her husband Eddie (John Simm) has chosen this, of all times, to quit his job. Again, bewildering behavior.

Rivaling the Queen of Hearts in the bad temper department is the sisters' mother Eileen (Kika Markham), who attempts to deal with her own dissatisfaction with life by making everybody else equally miserable. You can almost hear poor Alice muttering "curiouser and curiouser," trying to make sense of this mixed-up world: "Why would people think one thing and do another, Mr. Caterpillar? Or love someone and not show it? Most illogical indeed!"

Which is exactly the point of "Wonderland," a pensive film that lets us examine the gap between people's hearts and actions, their dreams and day jobs. Working off a dense, Altmanesque script by Laurence Coriat that features several interlocking stories, director Michael Winterbottom ("I Want You," "Welcome To Sarajevo") succeeds in creating a multigenerational portrait of longing and loneliness in the streets of Soho and Vauxhall.

The film focuses on the three sisters, Nadia, Debbie and Molly, and their parents, lovers and neighbors over the course of one tumultuous weekend. Nadia puts out a classified ad looking for Mr. Right, although she'd probably settle for Mr. Not-Too-Bad at this point. Debbie is happily divorced, and using the beauty parlor she works at for some after-hours trysts. Molly seems to have the dream marriage, until her husband's precipitous career move into unemployment.

While the films of Robert Altman (particularly "Short Cuts") are an obvious influence here, the more apt reference is Wong Kar-wai's "Chungking Express," which "Wonderland" resembles in both look -- its time-lapse wash of city lights and filming on the fly -- and in theme. Like Wong, Winterbottom seeks to frame his lone characters in the anonymous human tide of the city, each longing to connect with someone, but feeling drowned by anonymity.

Particularly moving is a scene where Nadia is returning home alone after a dismal date. Slumped in the seat of a double-decker, she's surrounded by Saturday night rowdies and happy loving couples, and the look on her face is so helplessly lonely, you can't help but want to drag her out of the film and buy her a nice hot cuppa.

We've all been there, we all know that feeling, and "Wonderland" conveys it remarkably well, thanks to a smart script and an even better cast. All of them come across entirely down to earth in their roles, and this illusion of reality is reinforced by Winterbottom's approach, shooting with hand-held cameras (firmly held, for a pleasant change), entirely on location with no lights, no boom mikes and no makeup.

This ability to try any approach, whatever suits the material best, is Winterbottom's true strength as a director. He's tackled everything from stylish, sexy neo-noir ("I Want You") to straight literary adaptation ("Jude") and impassioned political docudrama ("Welcome to Sarajevo"), and done it all well. His unobtrusive, street-level filming in "Wonderland" grounds the film in place and time in a way that a studio back lot never could. (See "The Truman Show" for humorous commentary on this subject.)

In some ways, "Wonderland" is the polar opposite of Todd Solondz's "Happiness." While both films focus on three sisters and their "guy problems," Solondz's film drips with bitter irony and smirking nihilism, but Winterbottom's is sympathetic, romantic and ultimately hopeful. Winterbottom's may be the less fashionable approach these days (and Michael Nyman's score might repel those who cringe at sentimentality), but both films are ultimately offering the same thing: a cinema that involves the viewer. We may not understand why these people act the way they do, but we can watch, and just maybe learn something.

"Wonderland" (titled "Hikari-no-machi" in Japan) opens tomorrow at Cinema Saison Shibuya.

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