Wonderland (1999 film)

Wonderland is a 1999 British drama film directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Jack Shepherd, Kika Markham, Shirley Henderson, Gina McKee, Molly Parker, John Simm, and Stuart Townsend. The screenplay concerns the lives of a London couple, their three adult daughters and absent son. The film was entered into the 1999 Cannes Film Festival.[1]

Theatrical release poster
Directed byMichael Winterbottom
Produced byMichele Camarda
Gina Carter
Andrew Eaton
Written byLaurence Coriat
Music byMichael Nyman
CinematographySean Bobbitt
Edited byTrevor Waite
Distributed byUSA Films
Release date
13 May 1999
Running time
108 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

Plot summary

The film follows the lives of three London sisters and their family over five days, a long Guy Fawkes Night weekend in November.[2][3] Waitress Nadia (McKee), "shy, with a backpack and her hair in girlish twists",[2] spends all her time going on blind dates with unsatisfactory men from personal ads, while her hairdresser sister Debbie (Henderson) struggles to raise her 11-year-old son without much help from his irresponsible father (Hart). Meanwhile, Molly (Parker) is pregnant but her husband Eddie (Simm) has left his job without telling her.

Eileen (Markham) and Bill (Shepherd), their parents, are virtually estranged since the departure of their eldest son Darren (Enzo Cilenti), who they have not heard from since he left home; having left he is the only happy one in the family.[2] Eileen takes her silent frustrations out on the neighbour's barking dog, poisoning it when it prevents her from sleeping.

Franklin (David Fahm) is an over-sensitive man who frequents the coffee house where Nadia works. He is unable to summon the courage to talk to her, instead listening to music he thinks she would like alone in his bedroom. Nadia sleeps with one of her dates, but is then rejected by him.[4] Molly and Eddie (Simm) have a fight when she discovers he has left his job and he leaves. She goes into labour believing he has permanently left her, but he has really had an accident on his motorbike. After Debbie's son is mugged when his father leaves him alone, she resolves to keep them apart. Darren finally calls to let his family know that he is fine and Franklin has enough courage to talk to Nadia. Molly and Eddie are reunited at hospital after the birth of their daughter Alice, a name Eddie selected because of Alice in Wonderland.



The film's French writer, Laurence Coriat, was previously a psychology student.[4] Winterbottom said that the script began in a similar way to Short Cuts and "the connections between the stories were purely down to geography" but was rewritten so that "the story of one sister tells you something about the other two."[3] Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt had previously only worked on documentaries and news footage.[5]

The film has both realist and impressionist elements.[6] Time lapse photography is used to give moments of accelerated motion as the characters are followed,[2][4] which Winterbottom said was inspired by Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express and gave an impressionistic feeling,[5] "a rush of poignant colours and noise",[3] and other footage is filmed on grainy hand-held 16mm cameras, giving a realist "fly-on-the-wall" feeling.[4][5] The sex scenes are realistic and awkward – the scene between Nadia and Tim features no music, which highlights the sounds of kissing and rustling.[5] A small crew was used, with only natural lighting and no sound boom. A pub scene was shot with real people in the background, near closing time,[3] and the café where Nadia works is a real small café in Soho.[5] People alone in London crowds were picked out and filmed to make the audience speculate about their stories.[4] The scenes where Dan takes his son to a football match were filmed at Selhurst Park, the ground of Crystal Palace in a 1–1 draw against Birmingham City on 6 February 1999.[7] Senses of Cinema said that the editing was "immaculate and exciting".[6]


The soundtrack to Wonderland was composed by Michael Nyman, who has said it is his favourite score.[8] The New York Times compared the score to that of Stewart Copeland for Rumble Fish and said that "the rhythms are like a clock ticking"[2] and it is "alternately plaintive and mournful".[4] The Guardian said it was "sumptuous, romantic".[3] Senses of Cinema said the music was "heart-wrenching, full of tragic qualities, yet also extremely light".[6]


The film's US debut was at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2000.[4]

Critical reception

The New York Times argued that a scene in which Nadia slowly descends into tears on a double-decker bus as others party around her was "one of the most riveting scenes in a movie this year" (a scene The Guardian also said "rings true"), but found that "there is no sad turn in these characters' lives that you cannot see coming about an hour before".[2] The Guardian said that the filming of London's streets was similar to that of New York by Martin Scorsese, but complained about the characterisation, for example that with Nadia "we are given no insight into her struggles or her grinning social ineptitude" leaving the film "alienating and infuriating." They praised the acting, particularly the "desperately affecting" parents, but were annoyed by the attempts at Estuary English by the cast of non-Londoners.[3] Senses of Cinema has called it "arguably one of Winterbottom's most accomplished works"[5] and "a wonderful and very poignant film."[6] The New Statesman wrote in 2016 that the film "far exceeds anything made during the kitchen-sink period in the breadth of its humanism and the range of its social portraiture, and deserves to be recognised as one of the great achievements of British cinema."[9]

Themes and analysis

I was ... interested in exploring the emotional connections between people in a family who rarely meet, and in capturing the noise and excitement of London and the exhaustion of trying to keep your head above water in a place where you've got seven million people around you whose lives you don't know.

—Winterbottom, 2000[4]

The New York Times said the film was "a modern-day London turn on Chekhov"'s Three Sisters and said that the sisters could be interpreted as different life stages of a single woman.[2] The social realism of the film was compared to those of fellow British directors Ken Loach and Mike Leigh.[2] Although the film has "an almost unbearable sadness" it is not bleak.[6] The end of the film has a "dramatic coincidence" that brings the characters together for Molly giving birth, a sentimental narrative device that is a change from the relative lack of structure of the rest of the film,[5] though Sense of Cinema also saw this final scene as "genuinely uplifting" and only giving tentative hope for the characters.[6]


  1. "Festival de Cannes: Wonderland". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 7 October 2009.
  2. Mitchell, Elvis (28 July 2000). "Wonderland (1999) Film Review; Three Sisters in London, With Lives Worth Mourning". New York Times. Retrieved 9 February 2011.
  3. Jeffries, Stuart (18 January 2000). "The walking wounded of Wonderland". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 February 2011.
  4. Fuller, Graham (23 July 2000). "A New Generation of Realists Scrap The Kitchen Sink". New York Times. Retrieved 9 February 2011.
  5. Allison, Deborah (2005). "Great directors: Michael Winterbottom". Senses of Cinema. Retrieved 14 February 2011.
  6. Mousoulis, Bill (July 2000). "The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Wonderland". Sense of Cinema. Archived from the original on 25 December 2010. Retrieved 14 February 2011.
  7. "Results saturday 6th February 1999". Statto.com. 17 June 2012. Archived from the original on 26 May 2013.
  8. BBC Radio 4 Film Programme, 5 December 2008
  9. http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/film/2016/01/rebel-realist-cause
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