Wonderland

on January 21, 2000 by Lael Loewenstein
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   A director of strikingly diverse but always interesting films, Michael Winterbottom ("Jude," "Welcome to Sarajevo") does some of his best work in "Wonderland." The ironically-titled slice-of-life film observes three south London sisters over the course of a long weekend; like last year's "Happiness" and "Playing by Heart," which had similar narrative structures, it never overtly states the sisters' relationships but allows them to be deduced naturally as the drama evolves. Still, it's wholly different in tone and technique from those films: neither black comedy like the former or slick Hollywood product like the latter, "Wonderland" is an intimate, affecting family drama with a homespun feel that often surprises with its ability to move the viewer in simple ways.
   The story follows 13 people in all, of whom the central characters are sisters Debbie (Shirley Henderson), Nadia (Gina McKee) and Molly (Molly Parker). Each of the women struggles with aspects of her life: hairstlylist Debbie tries to raise her young son but goes off for an occasional shag; lonely Nadia, a waitress, places ads in the personals but meets a series of creeps; and Molly is days away from giving birth when she learns her husband Eddie (John Simm) has quit his job. Peripheral characters include Debbie's irresponsible ex-husband (Ian Hart) and the girls' parents (Kika Markham and Jack Shepard), who are trapped in a loveless marriage. With so many characters to keep track of, it's impressive that Winterbottom gives all of them ample time and each story suffiecient weight in a film that never feels too long or narratively unwieldy.
   Much of that success is due to Winterbottom's fresh technical approach. The film was shot on Super 16 stock (blown up to 35mm) with mostly handheld cameras using only natural lighting and no extras-much like the pared-down filmmaking of the Dogme 95 school that includes Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. Finally, though, "Wonderland" feels closer to the realm of Ken Loach, John Cassavetes (in naturalistic acting styles) and Mike Leigh (in the working-class milieu) than the Dogme films, and it's also a more emotionally accessible work than some of the Dogme movies thus far. Starring Gina McKee, Shirley Henderson and Molly Parker. Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Written by Laurence Coriat. Produced by Michele Camarda and Andrew Eaton. A Universal release. Drama. R for some strong sexuality, and for language. Running time: 107 min
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