Imagine Ingmar Bergman dropping hallucinogens then stopping by the local insane asylum to direct an all-inmate, gothic version of Alice in Wonderland. You can’t? Then run to your local video outlet and rent, buy, or…whatever…BBC’s 1966 Alice in Wonderland.
Director Jonathan Miller’s made-for-television adaptation is an ageless, surreal vision. Filmed in black and white, Alice in Wonderland is faithful to the source material. There is an assumption that the viewer is familiar with the original work; animal characters are played by actors in Victorian dress, not animal costumes, and it’s up to us to know who they are when Alice encounters them. As for the actors—what a cast! Michael Redgrave as the Caterpillar, Peter Cook as the Mad Hatter, Michael Gough as the March Hare, Peter Sellers as the King of Hearts, Malcolm Muggeridge as the Gryphon, and John Gielgud as the Mock Turtle—could we ask for more? Let's do and get Leo McKern as the Duchess, an unexpected and delightful performance. Anne-Marie Mallik, a young actress who apparently never again acted, stars as Alice. Best of all, the Cheshire Cat is played by—are you ready for this?—a cat!
This Alice is sometimes grim, often impudent. She is not a wide-eyed innocent, but a sarcastic, disrespectful observer of a world that she finds wearisome. There are scenes where she seems nearly schizophrenic, others where she does not speak but her thoughts are telegraphed to the audience. At times she reacts directly to the camera, as though she were turning to the viewer. There may be far too many long, lingering shots of Alice staring off into the distance, but they define an Alice at odds with her surroundings.
I am repeatedly tempted to use the term “dreamlike” to describe various aspects of this production, but that would be redundant, since Alice in Wonderland is about a dream. It does, however, reinforce that this is, indeed, a faithful adaptation. The look and feel of it is like no Alice I’ve ever experienced, a testimony to Miller’s inventiveness. It is dark and it is much more for adults than for children.
To truly appreciate the cinematography, watch Alice in Wonderland without sound. Experience frame after frame of fine-art photography; so many shots are beautiful on their own. The camera work serves to enhance the dreamscape. Music was arranged by Ravi Shankar; the sitar and oboe augment the mystical atmosphere.
Included on this DVD are a 12-minute silent version of Alice in Wonderland, filmed in 1903 and narrated by a film historian; Ravi Shankar Plays for Alice (a short); a still photo gallery which allows the viewer to see in color; director’s commentary; and an odd “biopic,” from 1965, titled Alice or The Wednesday Play. This last entry is also black and white, and depicts the relationship between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell (the real-life Alice), while telling the story, Alice in Wonderland. I thought, at first, that it was a comedy because the acting and direction were similar to the style of Monty Python sketches. Instead, it is a somewhat sad and uncomfortable rendering of an adult enamored with a child. The child is, as children often are, callous and the adult is oversensitive. I don’t think I was ready for Lewis Carroll, the stuttering pedophile. Interestingly, the actors in the Alice in Wonderland segments appear in animal costumes.
BBC’s Alice in Wonderland will be released on March 2, timed to ride the crest of Alice-mania, the expected reaction to the Tim Burton version of Alice due in theaters March 5. Burton’s version will also be surreal; his Alice is a young woman and the supporting characters are highly stylized. Burton has a talent for extracting eccentric performances from his cast, and I suspect he will deliver a stunning adaptation.
BBC’s budget for this Alice in Wonderland was modest, particularly in comparison to Burton’s. But the two cannot be compared; they are of and for different eras, imagined by different geniuses. As “the Bard” so aptly put it, “Comparisons are odorous.”
Bottom Line: Would I buy/rent Alice in Wonderland? Yes. It is a remarkable vision.