Thursday, April 8, 2010

it is the play of itself

We saw Alice in Wonderland with friends a few nights ago. Tim Burton, who has never shown the tiniest desire to attempt Carroll's logical extremism in any other film, doesn't attempt it here. Helena Bonham Carter's Red Queen was so much like Miranda Richardson in the second series of Blackadder that even M., who was unfamiliar with the show until he migrated, picked up on it. Anne Hathaway floated through the role of the White Queen with gestures that M. (who adored them) described as "camp," holding her elbows cocked and her fingers wafting, like a woman waiting for nail polish to dry.

Hamish, the glossy young lord who proposes to adult Alice in the real world before she goes down the rabbit hole, was played beautifully by someone I'd never seen before. Leo Bill? He filled his minor role with the pantomime roundedness that Alan Rickman brought to the Sheriff of Nottingham, and the alertness and glee of this, the private fun he was having, made him seem awake while everyone else on screen was sleeping upright, tucking his jaw down chinlessly, and pootering on about his digestive tract. The other real-world actors played it straight, which was a mistake, because 'it,' that is, the script they were given, did them no favours. Clump, thud, plop, went the script, both story and dialogue dull.

So. And writing like this reminds me of Pepys criticising performances of Shakespeare, which he does several times in the Diary. The Tempest, he says, has "no great wit; but [is] yet good, above ordinary plays." At the Opera he "saw Romeo and Juliet, the first time it was ever acted [after the theatres were re-opened following the fall of Oliver Cromwell's Puritan government].

But it is the play of itself the worst that ever I saw in my life, and the worst acted that ever I saw these people do"

At the King's Theatre he watched A Midsummer Night's Dream

which I have never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.

The decision to turn Alice into a fantasy adventure seems to have been born of cowardice and nothing else; the script makes modest gestures at a kind of rote feminism -- Alice is sometimes forthright and sometimes not, to suit the plot, and she doesn't want to wear a corset -- but there is no other justification for it, other than the fear that audiences might be bored by Lewis Carroll. So, given that they've eviscerated the Nonsense and turned the Jabberwock into a standard fantasy movie dragon it's funny to hear the characters pop out lines about the importance of the imagination and the majesty of doing something new. In fact I'll go further: it's hypocrisy.

I've never loved the Alice books, or hated them either, but I remember, when I think back to reading them at the age of somewhere-under-ten, believing that Wonderland was a chilly and oppressive place. Alice goes to a world where everyone is smarter than she is, or, at least, more powerful, more knowing, more commanding, and these other people understand the way society works while she doesn't -- which is what life is like for a little child overall, if you think about it. You're ruled by adults who lay down laws in accordance with a logic that you are not privy to, logic which goes mostly unexplained, or explained in words that seem beside the point. "You have to go to bed now," they say, and, "No I don't," you reply, and "If you don't you'll be tired tomorrow," they tell you, but how, how, is that relevant to now? "No I won't be tired," you explain, and you're sure that this is true; why shouldn't it be true, and why should their guess about the future be more accurate than yours? How could they know? There is some mechanism back there, some knowledge, that they seem absolutely sure about. There's nothing you can do to penetrate their certainty. You will be tired tomorrow, they tell you. They're certain of it. When you're six this might as well be Nonsense-logic.


  1. Sounds like I shouldn't make this a high priority. I do like your description of nonsense-logic.

  2. The character acting was the best thing about it. And the animation. The way the Cheshire Cat billows out and evaporates back into himself ... it's like watching someone play between their lips with cigarette smoke. It was the hypocrisy that really got to me, because the script makes a big thing about the wonders of the imagination, and how fine it is to be "bonkers" and "mad" ("all the best people are") and freethinking, but then the film goes out of its way to be as conventional as possible, and strip its source material of anything that might make the audience uneasy -- which genuine mad imagination and freethinking would. Do as I say, not as I do.