Alice in Wonderland always puzzled me. Plotless and picaresque, dreamlike but cold and uninvolving, it gained a foothold in the American heart because its author was embraced by a US university. In England it was considered by its critics as rather unsophisticated children’s fare despite its huge commercial success, but the endless reprints appealed to illustrators and interpreters. It was common at the time for even country vicars to be experts in many other subjects, so it’s no surprise that logic and mathematics figure heavily. Still, the book is peculiarly fascinating for the wrong reasons; one is tempted to try and impose order on it, to find meaning, to study it, to create a plot where none exists.
This astonishing and almost lost film (try finding a review on imdb) on the subject of Alice does create a plot. It was written by Dennis Potter, directed by Gavin Millar and starred Coral Browne, Peter Gallagher, Jane Asher and Ian Holm. It takes as its basis the Reverend Dodgson’s fascination with the coquettish Alice, hinging on her mother’s famously unexplained destruction of all the letters he sent to the girl. Ian Holm plays Dodgson, forever popping into the household to read from his book as the family start to lose patience with him and Alice, in the way of little girls, recognises his need and spites it.
There’s a breath-holding moment when Lewis Carroll sits in a punt reading to the girls and Alice starts to splash him. Stammering fiercely, he comes close to pronouncing his love for her as a look of dawning horror appears on Asher’s face.
But this is not just about Carroll and Alice. At the other end of her life, Alice Liddell, now Hargreave, is a querulous old woman of 80 (Coral Browne) travelling to New York with her carer and a reporter, on their way to Columbia University to receive accolades she neither wants nor understands. She detests the vulgarity of celebrity, the crush of photographers who want to touch history, and becomes lost in a confusion of memories and dreams.
Some of these bring forth the most surreal moments from the book (with creatures by Jim Henson) and have all of the terrifying power that Tim Burton’s version lacked. As the young Alice is bullied and questioned by the Mock Turtle and the Mad Hatter, the floodwaters of memory break and she is transported back to earlier times, when she is able to piece together the last parts of the puzzle she never fully understood.
Although the film was critically acclaimed, the acidic Potter probably won no friends by portraying the American frenzy of interest as crass and opportunistic, but it’s a brilliant and loving work, a meditation on memory, age, death and the creation of stories that is simply unique.