Lovelorn Londoners go walking through Wonderland.

Experiments in Longing 

Lovelorn Londoners go walking through Wonderland.

Despite a subtly scintillating cast of characters played with pitch-perfect verve, London -- in this case, working-class, unpretentious South London -- is the main character of Michael Winterbottom's gritty yet kindly Wonderland. Navigating the labyrinthine streets and suburbs charted in Laurence Coriat's debut screenplay (which evolved under the title Snarl Up and hasn't lost that attitude), Winterbottom boldly takes us precisely where we've gone before -- to the awkward in-between stages of friendship, romance, and family. The difference here is that he doesn't play the discomfort and confusion for excessive laughs, nor for heavy-handed drama. Instead, he lets us wander among the proles, forming our own conclusions, with a vérité perspective looming somewhere between adoration and shaky-cam voyeurism.

During an exhilaratingly chilly November weekend, as the excitement of "Bonfire Night" celebrations permeates the city, a loveless, middle-age couple, Eileen and Bill (Kika Markham and Jack Shepherd), find that their lives and those of their brood are rapidly transforming. While their happy-go-lucky son, Darren (Enzo Cilenti), maintains his distance from his toxic parents, seeking freedom from their hellish torpor in flings and travel, their three daughters orbit a bit closer to their origins. Debbie (Shirley Henderson) is a lusty, chain-smoking hairdresser prone to act out her appetites even while raising her adventure-seeking 10-year-old son, Jack (Peter Marfleet), and dodging her reforming yobbo ex, Dan (Ian Hart). Molly (Molly Parker) is a bit more conservative, hoping just to make sense of her relationship with her freshly unemployed husband, Eddie (John Simm), while carrying their baby to term. The film's spiritual center is Nadia (Gina McKee), a greasy-spoon waitress who haplessly submits singles ads until she meets a deceptively clear winner called Tim (Stuart Townsend).

Yes, you may argue, but what separates this from bad (or even good) soap opera? Somehow, it's the tone, the style, the overall humanity of the piece, and quite possibly its very vague agenda. Rather than an hour and a half of Hugh and Julia mooning (which, come to think of it, might be quite charming), we get a loose network of friends and neighbors who really aren't sure what they want, or how to get it. While under the stern auspices of Hollywood structure this meandering would provoke nausea, Winterbottom blithely sidesteps our narrative expectations by employing source lights, "real" extras, and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt's 16mm versatility. The result is a bit like easygoing Robert Altman, or Todd Solondz without being pathetic. It's spirited, invigorating, and refreshing.

Such definitions may come as a surprise when one considers that this is the director who brought us the disparate Welcome to Sarajevo and Jude, but Wonderland seeks to be neither a provocative political mixed bag (like the former) nor a devastating blow to the heart (like the latter). Instead, while confidently mired in obsessions of mediocrity (football matches, pubs, cheaply decorated flats), the movie sensitively graphs the erratic trajectory of the human spirit, from ashes, to a mild hop, to level progress, back to ashes, with some occasional soaring. The striking graininess of the film stock, the near-documentary style of the setups, and Michael Nyman's attentive score add up to a relatable and ultimately hopeful experience.

But will you dig the movie? If you're fond of Gary Oldman running around yelling, probably not, as it's much softer-hearted than that. This is more likely to be your ticket if you like clumsy romance with a bit of grit and grumbling.

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