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Dreamchild (1985) | Review by Pauline Kael

Dreamchild is not a movie for a wide audience; it simply isn’t conceived in the broad, narrative patterns that please most moviegoers. Yet it’s very enjoyable.
Dreamchild (1985)

by Pauline Kael

The English film Dreamchild is about a moment of epiphany. Just before her eightieth birthday, in 1932, Mrs. Alice Hargreaves (Coral Browne) sails to New York to speak at the Lewis Carroll centenary celebration at Columbia University. The voyage is disorienting, and her mind goes back to her childhood days, and to the lazy boating party of July 4, 1862, when the young Reverend Charles Dodgson, Lecturer in Mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford, where her father was the Dean, had attempted to entertain her and her sisters by spinning the nonsense tale that grew to be Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Later, during the ceremonies at Columbia, when a men’s choir sings the Mock Turtle’s song, “Will you, wo’n’t you, will you, wo’n’t you, wo’n’t you join the dance?,” she remembers the Reverend Mr. Dodgson’s shyness on another summer day. There were adolescent boys on the excursion, along with the grownups, and she was self-conscious in their presence. When Mr. Dodgson, feeling her rejection of him, tried to recite, he stuttered. She had giggled in embarrassment; her giggles had set off giggles from one of her sisters, and that had got her going again. The humiliated, pink-faced little Dodgson had stuttered so much he had to break off in the middle of the “Will you, wo’n’t you.” Apologetic when she saw how hurt he was, the young Alice had gone over to him, kissed him gently on the cheek, and embraced him. It’s only now, at this commemoration and with her own death close at hand, that the elderly Alice, remembering how he shrank back from her touch, grasps how deeply tormented he was, and that he loved her. The full force of the revelation shakes her while she speaks at Columbia. She recognizes that she knew it then, yet didn’t quite know it. And she almost loses control. It’s a fine, affecting scene: Coral Browne suggests the shock to the wide-eyed little girl who is alive in her still, and it’s clear that that girl—Dodgson’s dreamchild—has learned enough in her eighty years to value his love now for what it was.

Nothing I’ve seen Coral Browne do onscreen had prepared me for this performance. In the past, this Australia-born actress (who’s in her early seventies) seemed too bullying a presence; she was too stiffly theatrical for the camera, and her voice was a blaster. Here, as Mrs. Hargreaves, she has the capacity for wonder of the Alice of the stories, and when she’s overtaken by frailty her voice is querulous and fading. Through most of the film, her decisive tones suggest the practical-mindedness and vanity that link her with the bright, poised, subtly flirty Alice at ten (played by Amelia Shankley), whose conversations with her sisters have an angelic precision. The sound of these imperious little-princess voices blended in idle chitchat is plangent, evocative. It makes you happy and makes you respond to the happiness of the Reverend Mr. Dodgson as he loiters outside the little girls’ windows, eavesdropping.

Ian Holm, who plays Dodgson, has to achieve almost all his effects passively, by registering the man’s acute and agonizing self-consciousness and his furtive reactions to what goes on around him. As Holm interprets Dodgson’s stifled emotional life, pleasure and terror are just a hairbreadth apart. The freedom of imagination that Dodgson shows in the poems and stories he writes for little girls (there were many of them—generations of them—after Alice) disappears in his dealings with the adult Oxford world. Dodgson the Don is a priss—a scholarly celibate who is obsessive about purity of thought. The movie, which was directed by Gavin Millar, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter, doesn’t have to formulate most of this; it’s all there in Holm’s performance. It’s all there in the single shot of Dodgson feeling so gratified by Alice’s pecking at his cheek that he must retreat from her, squirming in his oversize stiff collar. (His clothes make him look like a wizened naughty little schoolboy, a close relative of his dressed-up brainchildren in Tenniel’s illustrations.) It’s a wonderful performance—sneaky-dirty in its recessiveness, funny and painful at the same moments.

The picture is a curio; it’s anomalous in the way the projects that Dennis Potter (Pennies from Heaven, Brimstone and Treacle) instigates often are, and its structure and techniques suggest a literate TV show rather than a movie. Despite the collaboration of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, Dreamchild is not a movie for a wide audience; it simply isn’t conceived in the broad, narrative patterns that please most moviegoers. Yet it’s very enjoyable; it has a twinkling subtext, and in some scenes it achieves levels of feeling that the new mainstream films don’t get near. It’s about how children can hurt us, and it’s about how a man who forbids himself any transgressions against propriety—a man who looks to be dying inside—can split his life between writing “nonsense” and writing mathematical treatises and never, ever crack. I wish that we could have seen other areas of Dodgson’s life. How did this prodigy comport himself when he was around the artists he knew, such as Ruskin, Millais, Ellen Terry, Tennyson, and the Rossettis? Did he allow something of the sweet, fey fellow who amuses Alice to come through? And was it creepy for Alice when she passed beyond his favored age range and saw him transfer his devotion to her successors—other bright little Victorian girls?

But Dennis Potter has his own obsessions, and American pop entertainment of the thirties is one of them. The movie is plotted around the impoverished Mrs. Hargreaves’ trip to New York, in the company of an adolescent girl (Nicola Cowper) whom she has taken from an orphanage to serve as her nurse-companion. This girl also serves as the film’s ingenue. Potter has devised a ramshackle romance between her and a young American (Peter Gallagher), a brash reporter who, having been fired from his job, becomes Mrs. Hargreaves’ agent and sets her to delivering product endorsements on the radio and in the press. This aspect of the movie is like a parody tribute to Hollywood’s newspaper comedy-romances (such as Love Is News), with Gallagher, who is all curly lips and dimples and black eyebrows, doing the Irish charm and blarney that the young Tyrone Power was a wizard at. The romance allows for some pleasant enough musical numbers. (“I Only Have Eyes for You” is sung at a tea dance at the Waldorf-Astoria, and Mrs. Hargreaves has a scene at a radio station that serves no great purpose except to allow us to hear a crooner’s gloriously nasal rendition of “I’m Confessing That I Love You.”) But Millar, the director, who has a lovely touch with Dodgson and the Dean’s little daughters, doesn’t seem to know what to make of Potter’s quirky affection for Hollywood’s exhausted conventions, and Mrs. Hargreaves’ Potteresque adventures in the Art Deco New York wonderland have wobbly tonalities. (I began to visualize an old-fashioned Hollywood story conference, with Potter trying to explain his ideas to a studio head like Louis B. Mayer or Harry Cohn.)

The conception is pure fluke, but it almost works. The picture is magically smooth, and it’s full of felicities, such as Nicola Cowper’s unsentimental ingenue (this orphan is a fast learner) and Peter Gallagher’s playing the high-pressure charmer in a loose, affable style. Billy Williams’ cinematography has a glowing dreaminess; his lighting helps us over the transitions between 1932 and 1862, and into the glimpses of the world inhabited by the eerie Lewis Carroll-Tenniel-Jim Henson creatures. There are six of them here, complexly detailed creations, and rather malign—as they are in the book. (They’re almost too fascinating for the brief appearances they make.) The Gryphon and the sorrowful Mock Turtle live among ledges of rock on a darkling seashore with rippling plastic waves—a Fellini-like night world of the imagination that the aged Mrs. Hargreaves visits. The March Hare has broken, yellowish-gray teeth and soiled-looking whiskers, and he seems to be chewing even while he’s speaking. He, the Mad Hatter, and the Dormouse, and the Caterpillar, too, converse in the same matter-of-fact, egalitarian manner that the visiting little Alice does. They—and little Alice herself—rattle around in Mrs. Hargreaves’ mind as she experiences a second childhood in the cocky splendors of New York. She knows that her flashing back is a sign of senility, but her new experiences are jogging her out of her confining Victorian primness, and when she flashes back she sees the riches that she has cut herself off from for seventy years.

The New Yorker, October 21, 1985

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