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The Journey of a Life

Thoughts on a film: Alice in Wonderland (2010)

The iconography is significant from the outset.  A young woman, approaching adulthood; her attitude defiant, even insolent.  She refuses to conform to social conventions; questions the 'status quo'; longs to dream and to be moved by dreams as an alternative to the dreary life, with its loneliness and routines.  The loss of her father hangs heavy.  His influence, as a dreamer (like herself), is in part responsible for her refusal to placate her mother's wishes and to play the part of the elegant young belle.  These characters - both mother and daughter - are on their way to a marvellous party, itself a signifier of a celebration of some personal milestone (birthdays, anniversaries, etc), though at this stage the young Alice is still oblivious to her mother's true intentions.

As the carriage makes its way down the woodland road, the journey of the vehicle becomes almost momentous.  Though she doesn't yet know it, this Alice is on the way to meet her potential future husband; the son of a neighbouring Lord.  Therefore the journey, as often in such films, becomes a literal passage between worlds.  The world of class and privilege - a better life, a more secure life - and her own world of comfortable-enough middle-class affluence; an existence, but one with uncertain possibilities.  It's also, more importantly, the journey between the worlds of childhood - or late adolescence - and her own burgeoning adult life.

Alice in Wonderland [Tim Burton, 2010]:

The deconstruction of the iconography continues from this point on.  Alice, still seeing things with the matter-of-fact practicality of a child, is shocked by the compromise and the sobriety of this adult world.  Her would-be suitor sees her as a commodity and little else; her brother-in-law is caught cavorting with another woman while her sister defends his honour; her spinster aunt becomes a chilling warning against her own capricious ways and of where this life of celibacy might lead her in a society fuelled as it is by barriers of gender and a barely disguised misogyny and chauvinistic contempt.  Overwhelmed by these betrayals and demands, she falls through a hole in the narrative, into a dream that acts as an imaginary psychodrama; a means of making sense.  Here she must drink a potion that will make her small, so as to enter into the memory that holds the key to a possible future...

Alice in Wonderland [Tim Burton, 2010]:

Again, the symbolism of this is palpable.  Before she can become a "grown-up", she must deem to be little; to be a child again.  She leaves through a doorway into a landscape, both vivid and surreal.  A land beyond reality, or at least beyond the reality we know.  The character has been here before, she's told, though she doesn't remember it; but there is something at the back of her mind that suggests the contrary.  An inkling, or the recollection of a dream?

From this point on, the story - for the most part - continues in a fairly perfunctory manner.  Foes are introduced; characters speak in terms of exposition; the action draws us in.  However, there is something else, more remarkable around the corner.  A revelation towards the end of the second act - a "twist" perhaps - in which a flashback deconstructs the unreality of the film, showing it to be a façade; a delusion.  The entire memory - this dream of "Underland" as "Wonderland" fantasia - has been built upon a misinterpretation.  This is the reason why Alice has repressed the memory of her earlier encounters, convincing herself that it was all a dream; even a nightmare.  As ever, the reality is at odds with the fantasy, at least as far as the individual can recall it.

The child Alice saw this world from her own perspective as both vast and wondrous.  The people, strange and colourful; the activities fun and enchanting.  It was all so different to her own world - the reality, with its strict schooling, family and commitments, bereavement and disillusion - where only the bedtime stories and the dreams that they inspired could provide an escape.  But the reality of this place is essentially that of a world marked by tragedy and unrest; a world of violence and civil war.  The people are impoverished, enslaved, driven mad by their own suffering and persecution.  Their activities, though engaging and wonderful to the child, were sad and dehumanising; enforced labour; painting the flowers red to announce the reign of an evil queen.

Alice in Wonderland [Tim Burton, 2010]:

This is how the child survives; by transforming the atrocity through the power of imagination, convincing herself that it's all a dream, a fantasy.  The power of Burton's film is therefore in this idea that the action and excitement of the narrative - as it is presented via the typical 'Burtonequse' stylisations - is really a mask to hide the more painful reality.  This chimera - this abstract reimagining of life itself - is how a child in Nazi Germany might have perceived the Night of Broken Glass, or how the children of Northern Ireland, who lived through the turbulence of The Troubles, might have interpreted the destruction that was left as piles of rubble on the roadside.

Here, as in life, the gaze of the child succeeds in turning the horror and the violence into something beyond reality.  Atrocity as a scene of children playing soldiers; bombs becoming fireworks; the war itself personified as a black-winged creature; a monster, literally breathing fire.  All these things are attempts to rationalise through the power of imagination, if only as a way to survive.

Untitled image of 'The Troubles' [Source BBC/Getty Images]:

Alice in Wonderland [Tim Burton, 2010]:

As ever with Burton, the film presents a variety of conflicting layers.  There is the standard surface of ornate stylisation, decadence, fairy tale whimsy and comic imagination full of references to other things.  However, beneath this surface there is a story with a very real and very relevant subtext.  Strip away the multi-coloured veneer and we're left with a film closer to the work of the Dardenne brothers or Ken Loach.  A subject matter with more in common with a film like Land and Freedom (1995) or The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) than the colourful phantasmagoria of Disney's earlier adaptation of the same text.

Alice in Wonderland [Geronimi, Jackson & Luske, 1951]:

Land and Freedom [Ken Loach, 1995]:

Alice in Wonderland [Tim Burton, 2010]:

Although initially as beautiful and pastoral in presentation as that earlier animated version, Burton's own impression of this Wonderland environment is eventually revealed to be one both physically and emotionally transformed by the ravages of war.  Its characters are as such broken and embittered, unable to fight back.  This subverts the intention of the earlier, animated film - which is almost presented as a flashback, rather than a prequel - by showing it to be nothing more than an illusion; a child's misconception of the real.

In this respect, the film is less an adaptation of Carroll than a deconstruction of the idea of childhood wonder, in which this Alice - the one on the cusp of emotional maturity - must face the reality of a place in an effort to confront the responsibilities of her own adult life.  Through this, Burton and his screenwriter Linda Woolverton are able to create a fairly remarkable treatise on the idea of accepting the often cruel practicalities of life - which are here exposed to the eyes of the growing adult, no longer shielded by childhood escapism - but also of refusing to be worn down by them.

However, the darkly subversive implication of the final scenes - following the inevitable liberation of this Underland/Wonderland as third world 'red zone' - goes even further than that.  At the end of the film, the Alice of Burton's vision is independent enough to take charge of her own existence, rejecting the conventions of an outdated society as more than just an adult rebellion, but daring to express herself; to stand out.  As a denunciation of the standard "Disney princess" monomyth - wherein the character shockingly discards the conventional love and commitment in the arms of the dashing and wealthy prince in order to find her own way in life, independently - the outcome of the drama is almost audacious.

The character doesn't so much develop through the course of this narrative as find a way to exist.  She doesn't need the charming prince - here stripped of all positive attributes - but instead becomes her own woman; entirely in control of her destiny.  Burton illustrates this transformation visually, ending his narrative with another close-up of the young Alice, no longer the innocent child with the golden ringlets seen earlier in the film (again looking off into the middle-distance, into the face of an uncertain future), but visibly hardened, even scarred, by the experiences of war.

Alice in Wonderland [Tim Burton, 2010]:

Earlier in his career, Burton was in many ways the natural heir to the throne of Joe Dante.  He made Hollywood movies that were imbued with a B-movie sensibility and which revelled in the deconstruction of genre conventions, conservative politics and even good taste.  His work was 'termite art' on the most profound and imaginative level - darkly satirical, sometimes even disturbing - but along the way this anarchic personality seemed to stray.

However, with this particular riposte to Carroll and the characters of his enduring masterwork, Burton has once again created one of his most radical and rebellious films.  The implications of the ending - which, without wishing to soil the character's progression, finds Alice becoming a kind of "colonialist entrepreneur"; setting sail for China in the hope of exploiting affordable labour against a backdrop of the infamous Opium Wars - seems to suggest that her own Wonderland adventure has seen her influenced more by the exploitation of The Red Queen (and her own terrible dictatorship) than the well meaning revolution of the markedly more positive Mirana of Marmoreal.

That Burton suggests this ending in a work primarily aimed at children is an example of the same anarchic spirit once found in films as varied as Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985), Beetlejuice (1988) and the masterpiece Batman Returns (1992).  Films in which the director was able to work within the confines of the Hollywood system, but still created personal portraits of sympathetic monsters, the malice of contemporary society and the suffering of the tortured grotesque (usually while rejecting the conventional narrative structure in favour of a more loose and disorganised approach).

The ending of 'Alice' is consistent with this same ideology, but also with the subtext of civil war and the corruption of innocence, as well as the subtle implications of that aforementioned final shot.  The weight of this image illustrates the effect that this battle has had on the still young protagonist.  Like the citizens of Wonderland, Alice herself has been transformed by the atrocity of war and the abuse of The Red Queen.  Her defiance and independence (so obvious in those opening scenes) may have found a usable outlet to free her from a potential future of domestic servitude as Ascot's trophy wife, but it has also left her both cruel and cold.  The journey, in this sense, is not only one of accepting the brutal reality of the world for what it is, but a story of tragedy and of innocence lost.


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