Movie Monday: ‘Wonderland’

Wonderland (1999) © Universal Pictures
Wonderland (1999) © Universal Pictures

It’s easy to feel like we are the loneliness generation of Londoners. From the rise of working from home, flatshares with strangers and the fact that the cost-of-living crisis has made nights out a payday treat rather than a weekly occurrence, it’s no surprise that a recent study found that 35% of us report often being lonely. It is somewhat comforting, then, to see that the Londoners of twenty-five years ago were just as isolated and adrift as we find ourselves today.

Best known for the cult classic 24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom’s unassuming Wonderland, made two years earlier, is something of a forgotten masterpiece. Weaving in and out of different parts of inner-city London, this quietly beautiful film creates drama from the everyday tragedies of ordinary life, treating each high and low with grace. 

Set over a rainy Guy Fawkes night weekend, the film follows Nadia (Gina McKee), Molly (Molly Parker) and Debbie (Shirley Henderson), three sisters who live interwoven but disconnected lives, as they navigate loneliness, motherhood and relationships in the city. Shot in music video-style vignettes, with a rich score from Michael Nyman, we blur through the streets of London in what feels like a dream sequence. The film was the first of what would be a long collaboration between Winterbottom and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who began his career in documentary material and went on to be Steve McQueen’s go-to cinematographer. His documentary style shooting combined with Winterbottom’s determination not to use extras allows each person in this film their moment: at a football match, the camera’s gaze lingers on the cheering crowd, each face within it a picture of mingled hope and desperation. When Nadia runs out on her date with a sweaty businessman, shoulders hunched as she shields herself from the cold London streets, the camera’s gaze drifts to shop windows and doors. Through the fogged-up glass we glimpse people dancing and embracing: the best party is always happening round the corner, just out of reach.

Elsewhere, Molly, though coupled up, fares little better. Anxious and heavily pregnant, she aspires to a life of domestic comforts, while her boyfriend Eddie is crushed by a sense of dread at the responsibility that awaits him. Proudly showing off her new kitchen, her mother’s singular ‘oh’ in response perfectly encapsulates the unique way mothers can make you doubt all your decisions with barely a word.

Wonderland (1999) © Universal Pictures

Instead of framing loneliness as a social failure experienced by those at the fringes of society, Winterbottom reveals it to be a persistent feature of everyday life, from Nadia’s perpetual singledom to the acrid marriage of her parents. As Nadia sits on the upper deck of a night bus after an ill-fated one night stand, out of joint with the party-goers buzzing around her, she leans her head against the glass of the bus window and weeps. Who among us hasn’t had a night out end like that? 

But it’s not all doom and gloom, and Winterbottom himself has resisted the idea that the film is an essay on the plight of the working classes. Each character experiences a high as well as  a low in their narrative. Yes, there are agonising moments of missed connections where you are willing these characters to just get it together, but these moments of almost-connection leave the door open for a brighter future for these characters. The girls’ father, Bill, has been long-abused and beaten down by his highly strung wife, but in one beautiful moment we watch him share a dance with a neighbour. Watching them sway awkwardly in the small living room, we feel privy to a truly intimate moment, like something out of a home movie.

Wonderland (1999) © Universal Pictures

I was reminded of Jonas Mekas’ As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000), a sprawling, diaristic ode to family life. Of course, in Wonderland, Bill loses his nerve before anything can happen between himself and the neighbour, scurrying away like a punished dog. In this way Wonderland is true to life: we all squander our potential, miss chances, make mistakes. For me, that’s what makes it so comforting. But whatever mistakes they make, for every character there is a seed of possibility, a suggestion that something good might be salvaged from the slim pickings of the present—however bleak they may seem. 

The final scene shows Nadia walking off with a new friend in tow, and the camera fades on them walking side by side, chatting easily and laughing. The lonely city awaits her, full of experiences waiting to be had. Leaving the Prince Charles Cinema into the heady chaos of Leicester Square, I felt much the same. 

Words by Kat Lenahan

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