What’s it about?
Alice Hargreaves (Coral Browne) - who, as a young girl, inspired Charles L. Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll (Ian Holm) to write Alice in Wonderland - travels by steam liner to New York in 1932 to attend a centenary celebration for the author and receive an honorary degree from Columbia University. Accompanying her is an adopted orphan named Lucy (Nicola Cowper). When they arrive they are mobbed by reporters, amongst them the dashing young Jack (Peter Gallagher). When they check into the Waldorf Astoria hotel Jack manages to talk his way into their room and tries to get Alice to reminisce about her relationship with the great man. He also takes a shine to the naive and petulant Lucy.
However, when Alice starts to look back at her times with Dodgson/Carroll her mind is clouded with doubts as to the innocence of his considerable attentions towards her. She also imagines herself in specific scenes from the book interacting with its strange denizens - only now her character is in the form of the miserable old lady she has become.
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Why is it significant?
Dreamchild is one of those 1980s films that received some acclaim at the time but, thanks to poor distribution, quickly disappeared into obscurity, only resurfacing on DVD in recent years. This is despite the fact that it features several Alice in Wonderland scene recreations with animatronic puppets created by the much-loved Jim Henson Creature Shop (who were also involved in such popular films as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth during the same decade).
It was the second tackling of the source material for screenwriter Dennis Potter - the first being a television play named Alice (1965). It was also the last film role for actress Coral Browne who was 72 at the time.
How does it hold up?
Despite its PG rating and Jim Henson creatures, Dreamchild isn’t really an ideal film for children. There are only a handful of scenes featuring the latter, with most of the focus being placed firmly on the human actors. There’s quite a dark, serious and meaty drama here as it tackles a somewhat controversial theme (albeit in an entirely inexplicit, subtextual manner): paedophilia. It has been alleged from various sources that Carroll may have been a paedophile, the strongest a recent (2015) discovery of a photograph in his collection of Alice’s older sister Lorina in a state of undress. Other sources, however, have refuted the allegations and claimed that they are based on a number of misunderstandings about the man. To be fair Dreamchild does leave it open to interpretation, and much of the film’s core focuses on the internal turmoil of the ageing Alice: should she remain an aged cynic who remains suspicious of Dodgson/Carroll’s nature, or should she leave him with the benefit of the doubt and recall the magic of her childhood? At the same time, however, the intensity of the affections he shows towards Alice in this film - while never tipping over into the realm of the sexual - do seem unusually intense.
The acting is mostly excellent. Ian Holm conveys a mix of giddy affection for the three young sisters (Alice in particular) with a charming eccentricity. He comes across as more of a warm and unusually giving person than someone who is outright creepy - and perhaps someone is fully aware of his nature but is too good-natured to act it out. Coral Browne as the elderly Alice is superb, her somewhat snide and uptight upper-class persona a simple front to disguise the complexities of her now-famous past. Nicola Cowper as Lucy is also well-matched with Browne, playing the part as a caring but headstrong adopted daughter. I found Peter Gallagher a bit stiff as the American reporter who is clearly both in awe of Alice and in love with Lucy, but he’s not intolerably so.
Dreamchild’s period details are pretty good, in particular, the art deco-influenced New York sets. However the low (just over $4 million) budget shows at times as many exterior shots of the ocean liner and the New York streets use coloured 1930s newsreel footage. The Jim Henson creations are as charming as usual, full of character as well as being a little bit sinister.
For everything that’s good about the film however it doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts. Director Gavin Millar had a background largely in television prior to this film and it tends to show as most scenes are rather flatly shot, letting the performances and period details fill out the storytelling. At the same time, there is the odd inspired moment, such as when the elderly Alice flashes back to the Mad Hatter’s tea party. She steps through a door in the hotel suite straight into the forest setting of the gathering, accompanied by a dramatic dolly zoom down the length of the table. Another shot with Dodgson/Carroll looking from a window while the young Alice runs into the distance, the white sun glare bathing the scene in a wistful aura, is also inspired. Unfortunately, moments like this are rare. The relationships between Jack and Lucy, and between Jack and an old flame co-reporter named Sally (Caris Corfman), also tend to take the focus away from the central thread.
Still, Dreamchild is definitely worth seeing for its performances as well as its delicate treatment of a somewhat touchy theme.
Runtime: 90 mins
Dir: Gavin Millar
Script: Dennis Potter
Starring: Coral Browne, Ian Holm, Peter Gallagher, Jane Asher, Nicola Cowper, Caris Corfman, Amelia Shankley