Gavin Millar’s Dreamchild (1985) received critical accolades upon its release. It was written by one of the most impressive of television writers, Dennis Potter, and features some of Jim Henson‘s most impressive work in his renditions of Lewis Carroll‘s Wonderland creatures. The film received scant distribution upon its release and, additionally, sat unreleased on DVD until 2011. Far from jettisoning of the darker, surreal elements of “Alice in Wonderland” (as happens in Tim Burton’s neutered version), Dreamchild does not flinch from the nightmarish qualities in this famous tale. Like its source inspiration, Dreamchild remarkably manages to evoke a darker milieu, while retaining warmth and wit.
That is not to say this is a perfect film. It dwells upon the contrast between English sophistication and American crassness a bit too much (even if it is spot on), and a romance between a reporter (Peter Gallagher) and Alice’s ward, Lucy (the quite good Nicola Cowper) is an intrusive misstep. Yet, along with Henson’s vividly designed vision of life below the rabbit hole are two stunning star performances. Most critics rightly singled out the performance of Coral Brown as Alice Hargreaves (formerly Alice Liddell). But, equally impressive is Ian Holm‘s eye-of-the-hurricane performance as Lewis Carroll.
Carroll (whose real name was Charles Dodgson) was a latent pedophile. Although it seems likely that he never acted upon his desire for underage girls, he did photograph many of them in nude poses. Those photographs have come to light since Carroll’s passing. Alice Liddell, his inspiration for the Wonderland Alice, was not among Carroll’s models. Apparently, Alice’s mother quashed the relationship between Rev. Dodgson and her daughter, deeming it potentially improper.
Potter’s depiction of that relationship stops short of lewdness, and that was a wise choice. The film opens with a view of a surreal and dark ocean. Atop a rock the aged Alice discourses with two spectral characters: a self-pitying Mock Turtle and the Gryphon. This is hardly the Muppets!
Later, in another world, the 80-year old Alice is sailing to America to receive an honorary doctorate on the centennial of Lewis Carrol’s birth. She is aghast at American commercialism and constantly berates her young ward. Initially, Alice is not altogether sympathetic. But, through flashbacks, we discover that her role as the inspirational source of Carrol’s famous tale has left her, in her advanced age, caught in a flood of nightmarish memories.
Caught in the recesses of her past, the characters of Wonderland imbue terror in her, and at the seedy center is the shy, awkward Lewis Carroll. For the young Alice, Carroll is a source of ridicule, curiosity, and devotion. Holm invests into Carroll such an introverted intensity that this performance calls to mind some of the great character acting from the likes of Montgomery Clift and James Mason.
Although Carroll’s attraction to the young Alice is outwardly platonic, his twitching giddiness from her mere embrace reveals a disheartening adoration. Yet in spite of that salaciousness, Holm makes us care for this literary misfit.
Alice’s ominous visions of the Mad Hatter, the Caterpillar, and Dormouse prove to be minuscule compared to her memories of the man who made her famous. This is an instance in which a very brief exposure in life proved to have a long-lasting impact.
The aged celebrity treats her ward and the American paparazzi with the same Victorian contempt in which she once treated Lewis Carroll. Yet, she is better than her worst moments. In the eventual realization of her life’s arc, Alice again becomes the girl who inspired a great writer. Brown’s performance is admirably intelligent and touching. It borders on criminal that the late actress did not receive a single award for her role.
A small, but perhaps apt trivia note: Jane Asher here plays the mother of Alice Liddell. Although Asher has no scenes with the grown Alice of Coral Brown, she did previously act with Brown’s husband, Vincent Price, in Masque of the Red Death (1964).