Movie Information

The Hendersonville Film Society will show Dreamchild at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 12, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.
Genre: Biographical Fantasy
Director: Gavin Millar
Starring: Coral Browne, Ian Holm, Peter Gallagher, Caris Corfman, Nicola Cowper, Amelia Shankley
Rated: PG

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.