Wonderland (Michael Winterbottom, 1999)
Wonderland is a lovely film, probably director Michael Winterbottom's best film to date. It's like looking at a well-kept salt water aquarium, where the individual fishes are all very interesting to look at; their interactions among themselves, with other species, and their environment, transport you into a hypnotic state of static observation. The aquarium is modern London; the different kinds of fishes are the citizens of different races and denominations; the rocks, corals and plastic structures are the tenements, the bars, the restaurants.
When viewing the artifacts swimming inside an aquarium, you tend to quietly observe a favorite subject --- probably a family of fishes doing something uniquely engrossing. Yet at times your eyes would follow another fish, but then quickly get back to your original subjects. Winterbottom treats his characters the same way; his subjects, a London family and their closely connected acquaintances, are painted with pathos, yet most of the time, his camera (under the direction of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt) would stop to peer at the faces of other citizens (the expectant date, the immigrant beggars, the ravenous football fans, the onlookers of the fireworks display). It's a worthwhile endeavor. Winterbottom seems to be saying that his characters aren't living inside a bubble; that they are connected in that intricate emotional and social web of other middle and lower class Londoners; that all these other faces Winterbottom lovingly gives time to have their own stories to tell, probably even graver than his subjects.
Winterbottom tells their stories with poignant accuracy. The film is set on a specific long weekend (Thursday to Monday morning) wherein a host of events coincidentally happens. He starts everything off with a botched blind date. Nadia (Gina McKee) cleverly eases her way from an uninteresting date. She eventually ends her Thursday night with a dozen replies from her message to a dating service; fervently hoping to hook up with that perfect date. Nadia's two sisters are Debbie (Shirley Henderson) and Molly (Molly Parker). Debbie is a beautician who singlehandedly takes care of his pre-teen son as the father (Ian Hart) is completely immature. Molly is very pregnant with her first child with husband (John Simm), who suddenly feels an unbearable anxiety with the coming of another mouth to feed.
By the morning of Friday, we get a sense of these characters' problems; Winterbottom further deepens their histories, their pains, and their longings. It's an investment that we're willing to make. We learn of these sisters' parents (Jack Shepherd and Kika Markham), an aging couple whose married life is being snatched away by daily bingo games, sleepless dogbark-filled nights, and flirtatious drunken dances with a next-door neighbor. There are sideplots (involving the lonesome son of the next-door neighbor and a couple on a romantic getaway) that will only eventually find meaning and satisfactory connections by the film's end.
Winterbottom keeps you drawn. He infrequently injects certain scenes with the music of Michael Nyman, usually during the night wherein Bobbitt's grainy cinematography are most intense, and stylized with fast-forwards, slow-motions that enunciate internal happiness or sorrow. While the film has an overall feel of depressing realism, it is balanced with the normal and natural joys of life --- childbirth, infatuation, motherhood, a long-awaited reunion. It's a balancing act that respects the depth and possibilities of reality; there are no ill-conceived literary connectors as mostly used by Iñárritu or fellow wannabes. The film offers a satisfying look at London life; and in that aquarium Winterbottom builds for us, there are no plastic-made beautiful mermaids, lavish windmills and castles. Just reality, hard-hitting, difficult to digest, but ultimately redemptive and worth it.