Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland is a bruised romantic’s wary valentine to London life. No less than Wong Kar-wai’s ravishing Hong Kong nocturnes, the film understands that the sustaining headrush and soothing white noise of metropolitan commotion is but a tiny perspective shift away from the dull, bewildering ache of psychic solitude heightened by relentlessly anonymous bustle. The alienating enormity of the big city may be an immortal romantic cliché, but Winterbottom—shooting entirely on location, without extras and with unobtrusive documentary techniques (handheld cameras, hidden mikes)—channels the self-evident symptoms of urban malaise into a movie of authentic textures and seemingly spontaneous gestures.
Wonderland follows three South London sisters over one long November weekend: Debbie (Topsy-Turvy‘s Shirley Henderson), a promiscuous hairdresser with a preteen son, a loutish ex (Ian Hart), and a cigarette permanently dangling from her lips; anxious, very pregnant Molly (Molly Parker), whose partner (John Simm) is silently enduring a premature midlife crisis; and Nadia (Gina McKee), a waitress in a Soho café, unhappily single and on something of a lonely-hearts collision course. Hair twisted into Björk-ish buns, micro-knapsack strapped to her back, Nadia—projecting a poignant combination of cuteness and wistfulness—propels herself from one horrendous blind date to another. (Winterbottom helps her along every so often, switching to time-lapse photography so that Nadia zips through closing-time throngs as if jet-propelled, on a magical, neon-smear tour of London.)
The film parcels out its misery evenly—the girls’ parents are ensnarled in a mutually antagonistic marriage that has long ulcerated beyond repair. Dad (Jack Shepherd) wears a fixed expression of transcendent world-weariness. Mum (Kika Markham), all frayed nerves and convulsive hostility, regards her husband’s rare, forlorn attempts at affection with bald revulsion and is given to outbreaks of omnidirectional rage—suffice to say, a neighbor’s yipping dog meets a crueler fate than the pooch in Todd Solondz’s Happiness, another recent three-sister diagram of familial dysfunction.
Laurence Coriat’s screenplay does betray the neat edges and stiff joints of a purely schematic exercise—Chekhovian bedrock (co-opted long before Solondz by Woody Allen, among others) overlaid with Altmanesque web (Coriat’s admitted inspiration is Short Cuts). The latter is a narrative model designed to illustrate that the connections we struggle to make and maintain on a daily basis are fragile or, worse, futile—a lament more ardently expressed in Paul Thomas Anderson’s beautifully crazed Magnolia. The pervasive woe here is a little too dutifully appliquéd, the stabs at resolution too easy (Wonderland ends with the birth of a baby girl, promptly named Alice), but, more often than not, Winterbottom’s fidgety, searching camera upends the house-of-cards structure, throwing the characters (simplistically drawn but fully inhabited) into what feels like real life.
Winterbottom’s corpse-littered but otherwise disparate oeuvre—lesbian-killer road movie (Butterfly Kiss), Thomas Hardy adaptation (Jude), war-zone polemic (Welcome to Sarajevo)—reveals a taste for bleak material and a knack for conveying the horror in rude, repellent jolts. His way with experiential immediacy is put to sublime use in Wonderland. Through the gloom of council flats and bingo parlors, the sticky clamor of West End pubs and football terraces, London is captured in all its seedy glory (as it seldom has been on film). Wonderland belongs to the rich British tradition of romanticized misery—it’s the cinematic analogue to the hallowed Brit musical genre of mope-rock, with a shameless array of half-a-person characters weighed down by Morrissey-caliber backstories. Michael Nyman’s score, itself a surging bittersweet symphony, enhances the melancholy mood.
There’s not a false note among the performances: Henderson, Hart, Shepherd, Markham, and in particular McKee add unspoken complexities to their portrayals. Traveling home on the top deck of a night bus after a particularly humiliating date, McKee’s Nadia does her best to ignore her fellow passengers (weekend revelers, happy in the haze of a drunken hour), gazes out the fogged-up window into the pitiless night, and chokes back quiet, barely perceptible sobs. In this one sustained moment of palpable anguish, performed with exquisite restraint, McKee not only steals the film—she earns Wonderland its pathos.