For years I have tried to like Gavin Millar’s Dreamchild (1985) more than I do. I came closer on this viewing than ever, but I still find it more interesting than actually successful. The story is intriguing: 80-year-old Alice Hargreaves (Coral Browne), the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland, is brought to New York City for the 100th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s birth. The fact that the film dares to address the murky side of Carroll’s attraction to Alice is even more interesting. But my feeling is still that the Jim Henson fabrications of the Wonderland characters are more horrific than whimsical and the direction feels like a TV film. Nevertheless, it’s certainly a worthy attempt—and Coral Browne’s performance raises it a notch.
Some aspects of the film work surprisingly well. Nearly all the modern scenes (set in 1932) work, in spite of the fact that the period detail is a bit shy of flawless (1932 phones do not have coiled cords) and the characters tend to play “quaint” (like they know they’re in a period piece). Dennis Potter’s script is part of the reason why they work, but the bigger share of the credit goes to Coral Browne, who manages to create a complex character—sometimes canny, sometimes dotty, sometimes frightened—out of the aged Alice, who has trouble reconciling who she is with who she was and who she was with what people want to think she was. In this regard, I realize that it is possible to make the case that the Wonderland characters that occasionally crop up are meant to be more scary than not, but this approach goes too far for my taste.
The flashbacks to young Alice (Amelia Shankley) and Lewis Carroll/Arthur Dodgson (Ian Holm) are a mixed bag. There’s no doubt that Carroll’s attraction to the child is an unwholesome one—and that’s refreshing since most films dealing with beloved historical persons tend to avoid any such unpleasant business. (Just take a look at Marc Forster’s 2004 J.M. Barrie biopic Finding Neverland, which doesn’t just sidestep, but goes out of its way to do some whitewashing.) But the film—in a desire to be sympathetic to Carroll—can’t quite strike a consistent tone.
All the same, Dreamchild is at the very least a worthy attempt. That it seems less than it might have been doesn’t alter that.