Saturday, January 11, 2020

Alice in Wonderland (Jonathan Miller, 1966)

Alice in Wonderland (Jonathan Miller, BBC, 1966). Peter Sellers, Anne-Marie Mallik, Alison Leggatt, Wilfrid Brambell.

GB 1966. PC: BBC.
    P+D+SC: Jonathan Miller – based on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll. DP: Dick Bush – 35 mm – b&w – 1,33:1. PD: Julia Trevelyan Oman. Cost: Kenneth Morey. Makeup: Elleen Mair. Title designer: Jean Braid – based on original drawings by Lewis Carroll. M: Ravi Shankar – perf. Ravi Shankar (sitar) and Leon Goossens (oboe). S: John Murphy. ED: Pam Bosworth. Assistants to director: Sheila Lally, Fraser Lowden, Tony Palmer.
    C: Ann-Marie Mallik (Alice), Freda Dowie (nurse), Jo Maxwell-Muller (Alice's sister), Wilfrid Brambell (White Rabbit), Alan Bennett (Mouse), Finlay Currie (Dodo), Geoffrey Dunn), Lory), Mark Allington (Duck), Nicholas Evans (Eaglet), Julian Jebb (young Crab), Michael Redgrave (Caterpillar), John Bird (Frog footman), Tony Trent (Fish footman), Leo McKern (Duchess), Avril Elgar (Peppercook), Peter Cook (Mad Hatter), Michael Gough (March Hare), Wilfred Lawson (Dormouse), Gordon Gostelow (1st Gardener), Tony Trent (2nd Gardener), Peter Eyre (Knave of Hearts), Alison Leggatt (Queen of Hearts), Peter Sellers (King of Hearts), John Gielgud (Mock Turtle), Malcolm Muggeridge (Gryphon), David Battley (Executioner), Charles Lewson (Foreman of the Jury).
    Primrose (n.c.) (Cheshire Cat).
    Loc: Rousham House and Gardens, Rousham, Bicester, Oxfordshire, England, UK. "Interiors were shot at Netley Hospital (Royal Victoria Military Hospital, the world's longest building at the time it was completed), a mid-19th century building that was demolished not long after the film was made". "The courtroom scene was shot at the BBC's Ealing Studios and involved the building of the largest set that Stage 2 at Ealing had ever seen". (Wikipedia). – Sir John Soane's cabinet-of-curiosities museum.
    73 min at 25 fps
    tx. 28 Dec 1966.
    In memoriam Jonathan Miller (1934–2019), recommended by a friend.
    A suite of four Vimeo links viewed on the television screen at home, Helsinki, 11 Jan 2020.

AA: I saw for the first time this extraordinary Lewis Carroll interpretation by Jonathan Miller. It is not a children's film but there is nothing unsuitable in it for children, either. The production design and costumes are not far from realism in this reconstruction of the Victorian era. This is the most sober Carroll adaptation ever, yet with an original approach to the uncanny.

There is a firm sense of place in the location shooting, and the feeling for nature on a summer's day is enchanting. Two young sisters take a walk and fall asleep in the meadow. In her dream Alice enters adventures in Wonderland. In this interpretation Lewis Carroll's characters are eccentric but not outlandish fantasy creatures. Even Cheshire Cat is played by a real cat, and the grin in the sky is a superimposition of the cat's head.

The cast is a roll of honour of many of Britain's best actors (Redgrave, Gielgud, Sellers... ), and although they are not incredible fairy-tale figures, at times I was thinking that "too much of the good thing" is possible even in this approach to eccentricism. Where there is no normality, nothing is surprising, but passages in the forest and the seaside help keep a sense of balance. Also Alice herself is well cast with Ann-Marie Mallik in her only film role. She is a center of sanity in the topsy-turvy dreamworld. Again, thoughts inevitably wander to the Carrollian spectacle of Brexit that the United Kingdom has been going through since 2016.

The brilliant cinematography is by Dick Bush for whom Alice in Wonderland was an early assignment although he had already been noted for his work for Peter Watkins and Ken Russell. Jonathan Miller and Dick Bush create magic from reality: from the forest, the meadow, and the seashore, and the large dilapilated building (Netley Hospital).

The mise-en-scène is based on a composition in depth. The camera is often on the move, there are long takes and some well-judged effects such as moments in slow motion, distorted lenses, and direct camera looks. During a forest trek the mobile camera manages a circling 360 degree motion. Carroll's shrinking and growing effects are conveyed with the camera which is at times handheld, and sometimes located on treetops.

Let's also note that Carroll's "through the looking glass" imagery fits perfectly with Miller's obsession with mirror and reflections.

It all adds to the dream mode. Alice in Wonderland is a dream play and a fairy-tale film, but the emphasis is on the lyrical, the personal, the subjective and the chamber play. The dialogue is sometimes reduced to a whisper, with an approach of an inner monologue.

The music is by Ravi Shankar who had became famous for film lovers with Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy. In 1965 the psychedelic rock of the Byrds was being influenced by Shankar and John Coltrane, and Lewis Carroll's books were favourites of LSD trippers (Jefferson Airplane released "White Rabbit" in 1967). The choice of Shankar to compose the film was imaginative and successful.

Lewis Carroll's books have been popular with film-makers since early cinema: Alice in Wonderland (GB 1903, Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow) and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (US 1910, Edwin S. Porter) were among the first prominent interpretations. The first prominent sound adaptation was Paramount's all-star Alice in Wonderland (US 1933, Norman Z. McLeod, with W. C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty). The most beloved interpretation is of course Walt Disney's animation Alice in Wonderland (US 1951). Carroll's true kindred souls include Jan Švankmajer (Něco z Alenky / Alice, CZ 1988) and Tim Burton (Alice in Wonderland, US 2010).

Even the best adaptations suffer somewhat from "too much of the good thing". Jonathan Miller's strength is his fresh and subtle emphasis on realism. At the same time he has a genuine sense of the uncanny, the elusive quality that Freud called das Unheimliche, and that in the French tradition of the cinéfantastique is known as the insolite.

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