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DREAMCHILD (Gavin Millar, 94 min, color, 1985)

What's Happening: Elderly Alice reexperiences her childhood memories and dreams

Famous For: Puppets by Jim Henson's Creature Shop


If Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are as dear to you as they are to me, then please watch the contemplative Dreamchild.


The dream sequences - featuring the Gryphon, Mock Turtle, Mad Hatter, March Hare, and Caterpillar - are standouts, not least because they bring out the eerie side of Carroll's famous fantasy characters.


But the film is really a human drama, one that at first struck me as overwritten but that quickly became sophisticated and fascinating.  We follow elderly Alice, with her teenaged servant Lucy, dogged by an eager young reporter, Jack, in 1932.


But we also see the young Alice with the Reverend Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) in flashbacks to 1862.

Various dualities and parallels suggest themselves.  Young Alice is naïve and obliging; elder Alice is jaded and standoffish.  We see Alice grow up, and we see Lucy grow up.  But Alice has repressed her sexuality while Lucy is awakening to hers.


Both Alice and Lucy, of the Old World, are polite and honest.  Jack, of the New World, is pushy and manipulative.

Yet the film never pretends to offer easy answers.  Lucy is too shy for her own good, and it's Jack's assertiveness that coaxes her out of her shell.  Each character changes in some way.  The Old World, overly concerned with propriety, must learn from the New World that in troubled (Depression) times, a little fiction can be redemptive.


The film also presents one of the grandest paradoxes of human life: we experience innocence only when young but appreciate innocence only when aged.


I was most interested in the characters, but of course I loved the dream puppet sequences.  The March Hare is everyone's favorite puppet.  I was disturbed by the Caterpillar because his face looked so human; it's paradoxical how something can be more disturbing if it looks more human.

Perhaps I'm overrating the film, but besides being engaged by the dualities and parallels, I was very moved by the performances and very impressed by how the director presented everything without sentimentality or judgment.


The real Alice Liddell (1852-1934) really did marry cricketer Reginald Hargreaves, really had three sons (two of whom died in WWI), and really did visit Columbia in 1932 for Lewis Carroll's centennial.


The full nature of Liddell's relationship with Carroll remains unconfirmed.  The film implies he was infatuated with her, probably but not definitely sexually.  The scene in the darkroom, where they're pulling the shade and shutting the door is the most suggestive.  In real life she was a remarkably beautiful girl whom Carroll drew or photographed hundreds of times.

The film avoids the subject of nude photographs, but of Carroll's roughly 3000 photographs, roughly 30 are nudes, including several of Liddell.


Pedophilia?  Perhaps, but non-sexual nude paintings and nude photographs of children were not unusual in Victorian times.


And Carroll didn't necessarily notice sexuality even when it was paraded before him; after viewing Joseph Noel Paton's overtly erotic "Quarrel of Oberon and Titania" in 1857, he simply counted the figures ("one hundred and sixty-five fairies") and left it at that.


Actress Coral Browne was the critic who got electrocuted in Theater of Blood (1973).  Amelia Shankley made the Little Princess miniseries (1986).  Peter Gallagher is best known to my generation for Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989).  Ian Holm was Napoleon from Time Bandits (1981) and Bilbo from Lord of the Rings (2001).


Millar is well known for TV episodes and miniseries, but Dreamchild is his most famous feature film.  Dennis Potter remains most famous for Gorky Park (1983).


Action: 5.  Gore: 6.  Sex: 6.  Quality: 9.  Camp: 3.

Don't miss: Sound effects

Notable line: "Troubles can't always be cured.  Sometimes we have to dream a little."


Review post date September 22, 2020

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