Brit sister act

WONDERLAND, directed by Michael Winterbottom, written by Laurence Coriat, produced by Michele Camarda and Andrew Eaton, with Shirley Henderson, Gina.

WONDERLAND, directed by Michael Winterbottom, written by Laurence Coriat, produced by Michele Camarda and Andrew Eaton, with Shirley Henderson, Gina McKee, Molly Parker, Ian Hart, John Simm and Kika Markham. A Revolution Films/BBC production. A USA Films release. 108 minutes. For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 67. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN

Someday, Michael Winterbottom might make a great film. He keeps flirting with them. His best-known pictures, Jude and Welcome To Sarajevo, are right on the edge of greatness, and show his virtues in striking relief.

He is a superb director of actors, so much so that Kate Winslet (Jude) and Robert Carlyle (Go Now) have given their best performances in his films. And his remarkable speed as a director means that he’s not inclined to over-think his films, which is actually a good thing. Over-think your films and you turn into Ridley Scott and start making startling announcements about Blade Runner 20 years after the fact.

Get lucky

He is also remarkably diverse –no two of his films are alike, which suggests that he might not make a great film, but he could get lucky. He might become another Stephen Frears, who’s made a variety of films, which wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.

Coming from British television, he works fast enough to be a contender for the title “the hardest working man in show business.” His ninth feature since 1994, Kingdom Come, currently in post-production, is his second film since Wonderland, which premiered at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. We might note that Winterbottom doesn’t generally write his own films, and he has either very good taste or very good luck with writers — his TV work included collaborations with Roddy Doyle and Jimmy McGovern (Cracker).

Wonderland, which takes place over a weekend in London, charts the romantic and domestic entanglements of a trio of working-class sisters (Shirley Henderson, Gina McKee and Molly Parker).

Despite Winterbottom’s assertion that the script is inspired by Short Cuts, it’s really the Dogme version of Playing By Heart, without the gloss and star power. It’s not officially a Dogme production, and it doesn’t follow all the rules — Winterbottom uses a lot of canned music, for one thing — but it has that grainy, all-natural, hand-held look favoured by the neo-Puritan realist aesthetes who have flocked to the Dogme banner.

I suspect that Winterbottom is simply playing with the style — he is a bit of a directorial chameleon.

Go Now has gloss, Jude has period detail without surrendering to the antique-hunting pleasures of Merchant-Ivory films, Welcome To Sarajevo has a certain newsreel authenticity in its first half. He’s also subject to experimental spasms in the middle of otherwise fairly straightforward films — the captioned freeze-frames of Go Now, the black-and-white-to-colour shift of Jude and the fast-motion sequences in Wonderland that serve as bridging mechanisms.

Emotional spaces

Wonderland is a film I respect rather than actually like. It’s one of those pictures that wants to put the kitchen sink back into English realism, from the cramped flats the characters occupy to the closed emotional spaces that they find themselves in. The three actors playing the sisters are exceptional, as is the always reliable Ian Hart –he almost manages to transcend his character, a somewhat familiar irresponsible husband who loses his son on the way home from a football match.

Comparisons may be odious — it’s an awful job, but somebody has to do it! — but Wonderland wanders into Mike Leigh territory, particularly the emotional landscapes of Life Is Sweet and Secrets And Lies. But despite its impressive emotional directness, it never scales the emotional heights of Leigh’s best work.

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