Film review – Stoker (2013)

2 September 2013
Stoker: India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode)

India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode)

The gothic fiction genre, where horror and romance come together to define and sometimes undermine the moral sensibilities of the era, originated in England and was most popular throughout Europe. Originally a literary genre, its global popularity and influence across all art forms, especially film, has been such that one of the greatest gothic fiction films of recent times is Stoker, an American written and produced film, directed by a South Korean filmmaker and starring an international cast that includes several generations of Australian talent. And like so many of the best genre films, it undermines and takes the conventions into new territory.

The title Stoker alludes to Irish author Bram Stoker whose 1897 novel Dracula is one of the definitive gothic fiction texts. Dracula is the story of a predator, using vampiric violence as a metaphor for sex, and depending on interpretation it explores a variety of sexual anxieties of the era concerned with men, women and mysterious foreigners. Stoker is not a vampire film, but it shares some of the eroticism and bodily horror that director Park Chan-wook explored in his previous film Thirst (2009), which provided its own spin on the sex/violence symbolism of vampire mythology. In Stoker, violence as a trigger for sexual awakening is a major theme and like Thirst Park relies on the sound design to convey desire making every breath of air or sip of wine the soundtrack for lust and bloodlust.

The predator character in Stoker is Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode), who on the day of his brother’s funeral turns up to stay with his dead brother’s wife Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and her daughter India (Mia Wasikowska). There is no doubt about Charlie’s sinister intent as when India glimpses him standing in the distance he looks like Norman Bates from Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) standing in silhouette next to the hotel. As Charlie ingrains himself into the lives of his brother’s widow and his niece, and starts digging up the garden, the film sets the stage for the oncoming nastiness.

The figure at the centre of the film is India who like many female heroes of gothic fiction is a young woman on the cusp of sexual awakening. The film and Charlie are obsessed with her age, reminding the audience that she turned eighteen on the day her father died. She always receives an identical pair of black-and-white schoolgirl Oxford shoes for her birthday, which increasingly become fetish objects that define her youth. She appears tiny against the large furniture in the house she lives in. As Charlie opens a bottle of wine he comments that it is young and ‘not ready to be opened’ at a stage in the film where it is clear he has plans for India now that she is of age.

India’s sexuality and how Charlie influences it is a central theme in Stoker. Initially India is portrayed as conservative and puritanical while Evelyn is sexual and open to Charlie’s seductive presence. However, like Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), Charlie is using the mother to get to the daughter and manipulates every moment to sway India from repulsion, to jealously to forbidden desire. Much is made of India’s sexuality from the mystery of what happened to the shoes she was supposed to receive on her eighteenth birthday to the close-up of the water dripping between her feet after having come in from the rain. She unlocks a box full of family secrets, which possesses all the symbolism of Pandora’s Box in terms of it containing both the evils of the world and female sexuality. And then there are the repeated shots of a spider crawling up her leg and in-between her thighs at precise moments in the film. Meanwhile, Charlie is frequently associated with the buzzing sound of a fly.

Not everything is what it seems in Stoker and its strength lies in how much it undermines expectations by taking a revisionist approach to gothic fiction conventions. The film never pulls the rug from beneath the audience, but it gently slides it out so that the audience can go along for the ride and accept the film seems to be one thing, but turns out to be something else. A key line of dialogue occurs early when Charlie comments that India has the advantage by physically standing on the stairs below him. Throughout the film India does physically appear lower than other people, just like her status as a young virginal girl makes her of traditionally lower status in gothic fiction. However, her uncle is right, she has the advantage and throughout Stoker it becomes apparent that a lot of generic conventions are being turned upside down so that the young virginal girl is not the victim she is often cast to be.

Stoker is about an awakening within India; an awakening triggered by Charlie, but not in the way he anticipates. The film begins with a flashforward where India narrates that she is wearing her father’s belt, mother’s blouse and uncle’s shoes and by the end of the film it is clear what these objects mean and how the different members of her family are part of who she is. Stoker almost feels like an origin story or a prequel to another popular genre, while remaining a more subversive than usual spin on gothic fiction conventions.

The blend of sexuality and violence of gothic fiction is right at the forefront of Stoker even if it mostly exists off-screen or through implication. Similar to the way that David Cronenberg’s films have moved from the visceral to the psychological, Stoker heralds a similar transition for Park. His meticulous framing and visual composition are more than evident in Stoker, but the transgressive thrills mostly occur under the surface in the psychological realm. This interior focus is effectively alluded to in the art class scene where instead of painting flowers in a vase, India paints the intricate pattern on the inside of the vase. And throughout Stoker the audience is in her intricate, violent and sexual interior world. It is a disturbing place to be in the most wicked and wonderful way possible.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Restless (2011)

3 December 2011
Restless: Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) and Enoch (Henry Hopper)

Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) and Enoch (Henry Hopper)

Enoch (Henry Hopper) has lost his parents, hangs out with the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot (Ryō Kase) and goes to funerals for people he doesn’t know. He meets Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), a young woman who also crashes funerals and who also has death playing a large part in her life. Despite knowing that circumstance will only allow them to spend a brief amount of time together, the pair enter into a relationship.

Throughout his career director Gus Van Sant has depicted the lives of young people, capturing the way they speak and relate to the world around them with an affectionate sincerity. His films are frequently about young men who are somewhat lost and removed from mainstream society, with death being a reoccurring theme that looms large. All these elements came together brilliantly in films such as Elephant (2003) and Paranoid Park (2007), and they are all present once again in Restless, however, this time something has not worked.

Based on a play by Jason Lew, the dialogue throughout Restless is twee to the extent that it borders on parody. The fusion of cutesy antics, banal teen-speak mixed with philosophical discussion (Charles Darwin is described as ‘the evolution guy’) and hip death-is-sad-but-also-cool attitude seems overtly calculated to appeal to what a marketing company might define as the hipster demographic. This is melodrama and sentiment dressed up as ironic nonchalance, complete with vintage fashion and geek-chic. Wasikowska delivers a respectable performance that attempts to stay true to the tone of the film without completely surrendering in its tedious indulgences. Hopper is less successful, although he does display occasional flashes of his late father Dennis Hopper, suggesting that there is an emerging talent within him yet to be fully realised.

Restless: Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) and Enoch (Henry Hopper)By signposting so early how it will end, Restless does suggest that it may handle its subject matter in a refreshingly unconventional manner or at least with a degree of restraint. That is why the film is most disappointing when it resorts to melodramatic outbursts that don’t feel like they belong in a film so self-consciously trying to distance itself from a run-of-the-mill weepy. To its credit Restless does eventually arrive at a moving and meaningful conclusion, but there are too many annoying moments that it passes through to get there.

Comparing Restless to Van Sant’s previous film Milk suggests that Van Sant is a director whose films are only as good as the scripts and actors he has to work with. That may seem like an obvious point, but worth making because so many aspects of Restless are impressive, just not enough to compensate for the flaws. For example, the cinematography by Harris Savides is astonishing. The film appears to have been mostly shot late in the afternoon in autumn, which gives it a gorgeous melancholic feel and visually evokes the themes of death and time running out. Visually and thematically the film frequently recalls Never Let Me Go although Restless is a far less satisfying film. Had Restless been a silent film it may have been some kind of stylish masterpiece, with its attractive stars symbolically posing through a number of scenes to represent love, mortality and embracing the moment.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

Bookmark and Share

Film review – Jane Eyre (2011)

11 August 2011
Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska)

Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska)

The challenge of adapting a novel, especially one that is so loved and very much considered a classic, is to ensure that it captures the essence of the source material while being a cinematic work that is successful on its own terms. Charlotte Brontë’s 1857 proto-feminist novel Jane Eyre is certainly one that carries an enormous amount of cultural baggage since it is so highly esteemed as an important literary work. Fortunately, this 2011 adaptation by Cary Fukunaga wonderfully brings the story to life in a way that those of us who have never read the novel can be completely seduced by.

A considerable part of what makes Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre work so well is the casting, especially with Mia Wasikowska in the titular role. Wasikowska is the right age to play Jane and embodies the degree in which Jane is physically a young woman but emotionally an older soul. She brings to the part both a sympathetic vulnerability and a determined stoicism that she needs to protect herself after an affectionless childhood and a disciplined adolescence. Jane is humble and withdrawn, yet as the film progresses Wasikowska’s performance hints at her frustrations and yearning for something more. Her battle of wits with the mysterious and powerful Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender) generates a subtle sexual tension as the two damaged souls size each other up with the potential for something more enticingly suggested.

Jane Eyre: Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender)

Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender)

Much of the film expressively conveys Jane’s emotional state and in that regard Fukunaga enhances the Gothic elements of the story where the setting takes on various characteristics to express Jane’s mental and emotional state. Passionate outbursts arrive with thunderous storms, love is delivered in sun-drenched spring mornings and windswept desolate moors are perfect for anguish and despair. And at the centre of it all is Thornfield manor with its dark secrets and mysteries.

Despite the abundance of film style that’s used to express Jane’s emotional state, the film never feels overtly melodramatic due to Fukunaga’s modern visual style. The camera is often positioned from behind Jane’s head, an increasingly common technique to situate the audience right behind the character to see the world as they see it, but in a slightly detached observational way to convey Jane’s guardedness. A real pleasure from the film is watching her and Rochester lower their defences to deliver lots of wonderfully tormented romantic dialogue.

This new adaptation truly announces Wasikowska’s arrival as an actor of significant talent. Fassbender also continues his incredibly good run and he is fast becoming one of his generation’s most versatile performers. Jane Eyre is only Fukunaga’s second feature film and it establishes him as a director worth following. The composition of light and colour in every shot that he achieves with cinematographer Adriano Goldman conveys a remarkable cinematic eye. Far from being a worthy and stodgy literary adaptation, Jane Eyre is a passionate and romantic love story that feels as fresh as it must have done when Brontë originally wrote it.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

Bookmark and Share

Film review – The Kids Are All Right (2010)

6 September 2010
The Kids Are All Right: Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore)

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore)

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a middle-class and middle-aged couple living a happy domestic life with their teenage children. Their domesticity and relationship is put to the test when Paul (Mark Ruffalo) enters the picture. Paul is the (until now) anonymous donor whose sperm allowed Nic and Jules to have their children and those children now want to get to know their biological father. As things start to get bumpy director and co-writer Lisa Cholodenko keeps a handle on all the characters, relationships and dynamics beautifully so that she is able to seamlessly move the film from moments of humour, to tense awkwardness to heartfelt sincerity and then back again.

The first scene where we see Nic and Jules kiss, the camera lingers ever so slightly on the moment to establish that these two central characters are both women who are in a loving, long-term relationship. Beyond that moment the fact that this film is about a family with two women as the parents is treated as a given. The film has acknowledged that we rarely see same-sex couples played by major Hollywood stars and then it moves on. This is just one of the many elements that makes The Kids Are All Right such a pleasingly enlightened and non-judgemental film.

The Kids Are All Right: Paul (Mark Ruffalo)

Paul (Mark Ruffalo)

The Kids Are All Right is also a very effective domestic comedy/drama and a lot of that is due to the performances. Bening, Moore and Ruffalo are magnificent, and Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson are also wonderful as Joni and Laser, the two teenage children. As the film’s title suggests (laughing in the face of classic “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” contrived hysteria), the children are doing fine, especially compared to their three parents who are having a harder time dealing with the situation than they are. The interaction between these five characters is so natural and Cholodenko has done a great job capturing the dynamics of uncomfortable situations, conversations with double meanings and moments where people let down their barriers to truly connect with each other.

The Kids Are All Right is a film about marriage, family and parenthood and it explores these themes with far more integrity, insight and humour than many other films; not despite its depiction of a non nuclear family but possibly because of it. Losing the traditional and conservative paradigm of what constitutes a family, without the slightest degree of sensationalism, has allowed Cholodenko to break through the melodrama, schmaltz and shallow insincerity that often plagues family drama films. Instead we get to enjoy the company of, and see some of ourselves in, this ensemble of flawed and immensely likeable characters.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

Bookmark and Share

Read more reviews at MRQE

Through Tim’s Looking Glass

14 March 2010

The life, times and twisted tales of  Tim Burton, director of Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Alice in Wonderland.

Tim Burton on the set of Corpse Bride (2005)

Tim Burton is a lucky man. While most other film directors have to choose between pursuing their personal vision or conforming to the commercial demands of Hollywood’s studio system, Burton has been able to do both. His dark, gothic fairytales – filled with freaks, outsiders and loners – are not the types of films that typically result in box office gold…and yet, somehow, they nearly always do.

Burton has always operated within the mainstream studio system, but has enjoyed an almost unheard-of freedom to pursue his strange, psychologically twisted stories of characters living on the fringe of society. A large proportion of Burton’s fan base certainly see something of themselves in the boy with scissors for hands, the traumatised masked avenger, the cross-dressing Z-grade filmmaker and, now, a 19-year-old girl named Alice who is at a crossroads in her life and doesn’t feel like she fits into society.

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, derived from stories and characters in Lewis Carroll’s 19th-century novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, promises to deliver exactly what Burton fans have come to expect from the iconoclastic filmmaker. Burton’s favourite music score composer, Danny Elfman, is on board, regular Burton actors Johnny Depp (as the Mad Hatter) and Helena Bonham Carter (as The Red Queen) are present, and the film’s lavish production design and hallucinatory special effects are all set to marvellously create the surreal world that Alice finds down the rabbit-hole.

After the dark and violent Sweeney Todd (2007), Alice in Wonderland is a return to the more family-friendly mode of filmmaking that Burton has previously favoured with films such as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). As well as Depp and Bonham Carter (to whom Burton is now married), Alice in Wonderland also features actors Anne Hathaway, Stephen Fry, Little Britain’s Matt Lucas, Alan Rickman, and horror film legends Christopher Lee and Michael Gough.

Tim Burton directing Mia Wasikowska on the set of Alice in Wonderland (2010)

In the lead role of Alice is an Australian actor, Mia Wasikowska, whom Burton describes as having the quiet strength and old-soul quality that is necessary for his interpretation of Alice. As a young woman at an age of immense emotional turbulence, and in a time when the pressure to get married would have been very strong, a curious and adventurous girl like Alice would have felt detached from the world she lived in. Such qualities make her the perfect Burton protagonist.

Now 51, Burton grew up a bit of an outsider himself. The suburban landscape of Burbank, California, which he later parodied in Edward Scissorhands (1990), may have had the same stifling effect on Burton that Victorian society did on Alice. As a child, Burton was an introvert who sought refuge in darkened cinemas, watching horror and monster movie triple bills. Through these films, the young Burton identified not with the heroes or victims but, rather, the monsters whom he regarded as misunderstood.

Burton’s obsession with misunderstood monsters and outsiders will be on full display for Australian fans at the Tim Burton exhibition, which opens in June at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne. Coming direct from The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the exhibition will include a collection of artworks and objects from Burton’s films, a full retrospective screening and public lectures by the man himself. Many of Burton’s drawings, paintings and puppets will be on display – going all the way back to the start of his career, working as an animator at Disney in 1979.

"Untitled" (Creature Series), Acrylic on canvas by Tim Burton, 1992

At Disney, Burton made a film that was dedicated to his childhood hero, the classic horror actor Vincent Price. Vincent was a short black-and-white stop-motion animation about a young boy who copes with his banal life by imagining he is Price, living a tormented life inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Clearly a deeply personal work for Burton, the film was made more special when Price agreed to narrate it. Price and Burton became extremely close friends, with Price’s role as the Inventor in Burton’s Edward Scissorhands being the horror maestro’s last on-screen appearance (Price died in 1993).

At the age of 26, Burton was already known in the film industry as a unique and innovative voice. When Warner Bros. decided to make a feature film for Paul Reubens’ popular Pee-wee Herman character, from the television series Pee-wee’s Playhouse, they approached Burton. The childlike Pee-wee character and the surreal world he lived in was a natural fit for Burton’s feature film debut, which gave the world a taste of what was to come.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was the beginning of Burton’s long-term collaboration with film score composer Danny Elfman. While Elfman has many other credits to his name, including creating the theme music for The Simpsons, it is his work with Burton for which he is best known. Elfman has scored all but two of Burton’s films. and his use of lush orchestrations and choir vocals captures the combination of playfulness and dark undertones that visually and thematically define Burton’s work.

Burton’s follow-up film, Beetlejuice (1988), starred Michael Keaton as a malevolent bio-exorcist whom a recently deceased couple call upon to rid their home of the yuppie family that has just moved in. Beetlejuice established Burton’s dark comedic sensibility and love of fantasy. His warped vision of the afterlife and its macabre inhabitants were created through an inventive use of production design, special effects, prosthetics and stop-motion animation.

"Untitled" (Trick or Treat), Pen and ink, marker, and collage elements on board by Tim Burton, 1980

While some of Burton’s trademark visual flairs do appear in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, they are on display in force in Beetlejuice, especially his uses of striped patterns, weirdly angled frames, and coiled and twisted features of the natural world. Taking the dark, shadowed, oppressive aesthetic of German Expressionism and combining it with the anarchic dream-logic of Surrealism, Burton’s films are distinctively sinister and playful in their design.

Although Burton’s career had so far been successful, it was his treatment of Batman that really blew him into the stratosphere of Hollywood royalty. Long before Christopher Nolan rebooted the Batman saga with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Burton gave birth to the modern superhero film with Batman (1989) and then its superior sequel, Batman Returns (1992). With Keaton starring as the tormented Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker in the first film, and then Danny DeVito as the Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in the second, Burton’s Batman films returned mainstream credibility to superhero narratives.

While many credit Nolan’s Batman films for returning the character to his dark origins, Burton’s films were, at the time, seen to be doing the same, taking their inspiration from recent highly acclaimed comics by Alan Moore (Watchmen) and Frank Miller (300). While keen to distance itself from the camp 1960s television series, Burton’s Batman films nevertheless combined macabre black humour with larger-than-life villains. His films also contained deep psychological insight into the fractured identities of its leading characters, and the way they reflected different aspects of Burton’s beloved loner personality.

Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands (1990)

In between Batman and Batman Returns Burton made the first of his two masterpieces: Edward Scissorhands. It also remains Burton’s most personal film, in which one of the misunderstood ‘monsters’ from his beloved old horror movies has to face the prejudices and banality of suburbia. Edward is a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster, whose inventor died before replacing the giant scissors at the ends of his arms with real hands. Burton cast Depp to play the lead role, starting their long director–actor relationship. Edward Scissorhands is a near-perfect film with its blend of romance, horror, comedy and satire; its extraordinary production design; Elfman’s glorious score and Depp channelling Burton’s childlike outsider persona.

After Batman Returns, Burton resurrected an old project that he began while at Disney: the stop-motion musical fantasy The Nightmare Before Christmas. While being conceived by Burton and bearing his distinctive visual stamp, Burton ended up handing the film over to Coraline director Henry Selick, who brought to fruition the story of Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween Town, who is sick of scaring people and becomes obsessed with Christmas.

Burton’s next project saw him reunited once more with Depp to make his second masterpiece: the biopic Ed Wood (1994), about filmmaker Edward D Wood Jr, who is widely regarded to be the worst filmmaker of all time. During the 1950s Wood made notorious clunkers such as the cross-dressing exploitation film Glen or Glenda (Wood himself cross-dressed), and the sci-fi horror film Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Johnny Depp and Martin Landau in Ed Wood (1994)

Instead of ridiculing Wood, Burton’s Ed Wood is an affectionate and respectful film about a director whose vision and enthusiasm would not be dampened by any obstacles (including a significant lack of talent). Burton possibly saw a bit of himself in Wood as they shared a similar taste in movies, and both befriended a famous horror actor and gave them their last onscreen appearances (Burton with Price; Wood with the legendary Dracula actor Béla Lugosi). They were also both attracted to society’s fringe dwellers. Maybe Burton felt lucky that, unlike Wood, he was able to creatively refine and channel his visions into products that were embraced instead of reviled.

After Ed Wood, Burton’s films temporarily lost some of their edge, and for the late 1990s and early 2000s his films didn’t quite reach the same heights as his earlier work. His all-star 1996 flying saucer spoof, Mars Attacks, was a fun homage to the types of paranoid 1950s Red Menace films that Wood would have loved, but it was a one-joke film (though admittedly a very funny joke). Burton followed up with Sleepy Hollow (1999), a dark and violent retelling of Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman story with several nods to the classic British Hammer Horror films. In 2001, Burton made a ‘reimagining’ of the 1968 film Planet of the Apes and, despite being visually impressive (to be expected with any Burton film,) it was easily Burton’s weakest.

Helena Bonham Carter with Tim Burton on the set of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

In 2003, and following the death of his parents, Burton directed Big Fish. Often-overlooked, it is one of Burton’s most emotionally rewarding films, dealing with the power of storytelling with a strong father–son reconciliation theme. After taking on an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Burton returned to the familiar terrain of stop-motion animated gothic fairytales with Corpse Bride (2005). This was followed in 2007 with an adaptation of the violent melodrama Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street from Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 musical. A Danny Elfman score was absent, due to the presence of Sondheim’s original music, but Sweeney Todd was still classic Burton with its combination of black humour, stylised violence and quirky fantasy sequences.

Now, in 2010, Burton shows no signs of slowing down. Alice in Wonderland has fans worldwide in frenzied anticipation, and the feature-length version of his 1984 short film, Frankenweenie, is in development for a potential 2011 release. Not bad for an introverted kid who dared to dream of a world where the loners and freaks who hid in the shadows were the heroes. The world of Tim Burton just keeps getting curiouser and curiouser.

The Tim Burton exhibition is at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne from 24 June until 10 October 2010. Alice in Wonderland was released 4 March 2010.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 349, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

Bookmark and Share

Film review – Alice in Wonderland (2010)

1 March 2010

Alice (Mia Wasikowska)

The first thing you need to know about Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is that despite its title implying that it is a new adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s much-loved 19th century novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, it is in fact a sequel. In Burton’s film Alice is now a 19-year-old girl who has forgotten about her childhood journey into Underland (she misheard it as ‘Wonderland’) and once more takes a trip down the rabbit-hole after ducking out on an engagement proposal that has been carefully arranged for her. Having now returned to the magical world that she thought was something she dreamt, Alice is given the mission of saving the Underland inhabitants from the tyrannical rule of the Red Queen. Such a film really should have instead be called something like Return to Wonderland or Wonderland III: Wonder Harder.

The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp)

The main problem with Burton’s film is that there is too much story when there should have been very little. While Carroll’s original novels and most other adaptations were absurdist, fragmented stories with Alice encountering one strange situation after another, Burton’s film introduces the majority of the characters within the first 10 minutes of Alice arriving in Underland. Burton has assumed, maybe correctly, that characters such as the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and Tweedledee and Tweedledum are iconic enough to not warrant separate introductions but the joy of Lewis’s novels is Alice’s progression from one character to another.

Burton’s film resembles fan-fiction where Alice, with the help of her Underland friends, is sent on a quest that involves finding her inner strength. The result feels like a mash up of The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings, which may have been OK if it didn’t feel so out of synch with the original spirit of Carroll’s novels.

Australian actor Mia Wasikowska does a decent job at embodying Burton’s classic outsider/loner persona in the character of Alice. However, despite the film depicting her imagination and freewill as being under threat by the social conventions of Victorian society, by fulfilling a pre-ordained in Underland she is simply playing yet another role that she didn’t choose herself.

The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter)

Johnny Depp is enjoyable as always but on complete autopilot as The Mad Hatter flickering between the manic, dark and vulnerable states that he has perfected from working with Burton for so long. Likewise, Burton’s other regular performer (and wife) Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen simply feels like a lesser version of Queen ‘Queenie’ Elizabeth I from Blackadder II.

Nevertheless, to dismiss Burton’s Alice in Wonderland altogether would do a considerable disservice to the remarkable visual achievements that makes such a film still worth seeing on the big screen despite all its faults. The moment when Alice does fall down the rabbit-hole and then emerge into Underland is glorious with Danny Elfman’s distinct score resonating on the soundtrack and Burton’s surreal gothic sensibility in full force, combining the aesthetics that audiences have come to love from films such as Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and Big Fish. The narrative may be forced and uninteresting but the combination of costuming, art direction, production design and cinematography compensate. You’re not going to lose yourself in the story or the characters but visually Alice in Wonderland is a series of moving artworks that are a joy to gaze upon despite lacking any depth, even in 3D.

Read Cinema Autopsy’s profile of director Tim Burton.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

Bookmark and Share

Read more reviews at MRQE