Pick of the Geek – Alice in Wonderland (1966)

Whether it’s the colourful whimsy of Walt Disney’s 1951 cartoon, the Victorian ghoulishness of Jan Švankmajer’s 1988 Alice or the CGI empowerment fantasy of Tim Burton’s 2010 version, film-makers have always enjoyed using Lewis Carroll as a springboard for visual excess.  The one exception is possibly the best and most intoxicating treatment of Alice in cinema: Jonathan Miller’s 1966 BBC television movie.  A parade of star names – Michael Redgrave, Alan Bennett, John Gielgud, Michael Gough – play the creatures of Carroll’s imagination while dressed in nothing more outlandish than dinner jackets, creating an uncanny effect similar to the Surrealist paintings of Rene Magritte.  The humans are just as peculiar, too, particularly Peter Cook as a truly spaced-out, wildly camp Mad Hatter.

Having ripped out the traditional effects-driven spectacle, Miller focused on what he felt was the true meat of Carroll’s text, its child’s eye view of the absurdities of the adult world.  The year before Miller’s film, Dennis Potter’s play Alice inaugurated the tradition of questioning the propriety of Carroll’s interest in his young inspiration.  Miller doesn’t address this directly but he does age his Alice up from the tiny girl of John Tenniel’s famous illustrations to the 13-year-old Anne-Marie Mallik.  This change, coupled with Mallik’s brittle, moody performance, invites the viewer to read the film as a story of adolescence rather than childhood.  In his postscript, Carroll sees the process of growing up as a kind of tragedy, and Miller follows suit, creating common emotional ground between his maturing heroine and the ageing Mock Turtle, played heartbreakingly by Gielgud.  Dick Bush’s magic-hour monochrome cinematography is truly cinematic in a way that even modern TV rarely is, and the score by Ravi Shankar draws connections between Carroll’s Raj-era Britain and the psychedelic cultural epoch the film was broadcast in, as well as Mallik’s own Kolkata heritage.  It has real magic.

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