Dreamchild (1985)

“We all want you to be the little girl you once were.”

Synopsis:
In 1932, 79-year-old Alice Hargreaves (Coral Browne) — the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland — arrives in New York for a centennial celebration with her assistant (Nicola Cowper), and finds herself besieged by both reporters (including the unscrupulous Peter Gallagher, who pursues Cowper) and marketers. Meanwhile, she reflects back on her days as a young girl (Amelia Shankley), when Carroll (Ian Holm) was clearly besotted with her.

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Review:
This most unusual little film — scripted by Dennis Potter — relies on a real life event (Alice Hargreaves’ visit to America in 1932) to fictionally explore the confusing — though literarily fruitful — relationship between besotted Lewis Carroll and young Alice, and the ramifications this famous association continued to have on grown Alice’s life. The “modern-day” section of the film pokes satirical fun at the culture clash between dignified Hargreaves (Browne is simply wonderful) and media-happy, Depression-era America, which is more than willing to exploit Hargreaves’ presence — with pay — for the sake of marketing her “image” like mad (this part of the story is reminiscent of Chaplin’s King in New York from 1957). Less successful is the budding romance between a mercenary ex-journalist (Peter Gallagher) and Hargreaves’ young assistant (Nicola Cowper), though Cowper (who sadly never made a big name for herself) more than holds her own in scenes which don’t do her justice.

Ultimately, however, Dreamchild is most concerned with Alice’s reflective flashbacks to her childhood, which — often in nightmarish ways — occasionally merge with the present in her aging mind. Ian Holm perfectly embodies the conflicted Reverend Dodgson (pen name “Lewis Carroll”), effectively conveying his desire for Alice while remaining sympathetic to viewers, given that he never acts upon his pedophilic urges. Amelia Shankley as young Alice is an excellent counterpart to Holm, showing clear evidence of the insouciant charm Carroll fell in love with, while (we sigh with relief) making the boundaries between the two of them perfectly clear. Equally impressive — though not given enough screen time — are Jim Henson’s Wonderland creations, including Mock Turtle, the Mad Hatter, Gryphon, Caterpillar, and Dormouse. They’re both magical and frightening, a perfect manifestation of Carroll’s twisted imagination and Alice’s lifelong interpretation of them, and they add just the right surreal touch to this highly unique film.

P.S. Click here and here to read more about Carroll’s real-life relationship with young Alice and her sisters.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Coral Browne as Alice Hargreaves
    Dreamchild Browne
  • Ian Holm as Lewis Carroll
    Dreamchild Holm
  • Nicola Cowper as Mrs. Hargreave’s naive young assistant
    Dreamchild Cowper
  • Amelia Shankley as “young Alice”
    Dreamchild Young Alice
  • Jim Henson’s muppetlike creatures of Wonderland
    Dreamchild Creatures

Must See?
Yes, as a little-seen “good show”, and for Browne’s performance.

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One Response to “Dreamchild (1985)”

  1. A must – more or less in agreement with the accurate assessment; I may go a step further in enthusiasm, though, since I feel the film is perfectly realized (as well as deeply felt). I’m simply amazed that it’s currently languishing in near-obscurity.

    I vividly recall the stark, Gothic quality of the opening sequence when I saw the film upon release. Just stunning; squarely setting the appropriately dark vision of the Wonderland scenes sprinkled throughout.

    This is a film rich in the duality of Dodgson himself: simplicity/complexity, reality/illusion, practicality/fancy, what’s normal/abnormal – and it spreads beyond as a textured theme: sincerity/greed, proper England/brash America, the splendor/falseness of celebrity.

    Browne is indeed triumphant here, enriching Potter’s already-rich script. Anyone who has seen her work in ‘Auntie Mame’, ‘The Killing of Sister George’, ‘The Ruling Class’, etc., may also get a good giggle when she delivers a bon mot: i.e., “Are you by any chance one of those – what are they called? – …homosexuals?”

    Whatever the truth may have been about Dodgson, as written, and played masterfully by Holm, he comes off as peculiar. Yet watching the representation of him is heartbreaking – particularly in the picnic scene, in which only-slightly-subtle mockery is made of his stuttering.

    Cowper does fine work, esp. when she gets some guts. Shankley does give a remarkably astute performance as young Alice. Jane Asher is cast properly here, lending quiet yet firm authority. But watch Imogen Boorman as well, as Alice’s older sister Lorina – very impressive in a less-showy part.

    Creepiest scene has got to be the Wonderland tea party. I’m not sure if we need to see more of Henson’s creations in the film – but, here, at any rate, his Mad Hatter and March Hare are downright monsters.

    Terrific period detail as well. The billboard plugging Jean Harlow in ‘Red-Headed Woman’ is a nice backdrop touch.

    Potter and director Millar have crafted a one-of-a-kind, often-dream-like tale; one well worth the effort to discover.

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