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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This intelligent, absorbing, and insightful BBC TV special centers on Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodson (an excellent performance by George Baker), an awkward and stuttering, but brilliant and creative academic who wrote the classic novel "Alice in Wonderland" under the alias Lewis Carroll. Dodson was inspired to write said book through his friendship with the lovely and radiant young girl Alice Liddell (a delightful and enchanting portrayal by the adorable Deborah Watling). Director Gareth Davies and writer Dennis Potter not only astutely peg how Dodson's eccentricity alternately charmed or irritated those who knew him, but also show how everyday events influenced his work. In addition, Davies and Potter vividly capture Dodson's tremendous leaping imagination and painfully acute sensitivity (he was vehemently opposed to change and was extremely uncomfortable with the fame his book brought him). Moreover, there's a few neat visualizations of key scenes from the book. Baker and Watling do sterling work in the lead roles; they receive fine support from Rosalie Crutchley as Alice's concerned mother Mrs. Liddell, David Langton as the self-absorbed Dean Liddell, Maria Coyne as Alice's bratty sister Edith, John Bailey as the batty Mad Hatter, and John Saunders as the melancholy Mock Turtle. Charles Parnall's sharp black and white cinematography boasts several stately fades and dissolves. Peter Green's spare, melodic score likewise does the trick. Worth a look for fans of Lewis Carroll's work.
For a man who liked to play with meanings, Lewis Carroll (a. k. a. Rev.
Charles Dodgson) might well have enjoyed the riddle he has become to
posterity. "Alice" is an attempt at delving into that riddle that
leaves you as befuddled as you began.
The teleplay focuses on Dodgson's difficult relationship with the world around him. We first meet him on a train ride, a brusque, unhappy figure known for writing "Alice In Wonderland." A young woman, newly married, spots the man who once told her stories and asked her to consider him "your very special friend," a memory which seems to gnaw at the good reverend. We then travel back to his days as a young teacher at Christ Church, Oxford, where he met the girl behind his most famous creation.
Written by Dennis Potter and first aired on the BBC in 1965, "Alice" presents Carroll as something of a walking conundrum. He's archly conservative in manner, a bit of a stick, yet given to whimsically loopy behavior. As played by George Baker, he's also rather keen on young girls, particularly the title character (Deborah Watling). Is the Reverend a closet perve, or just emotionally frustrated in his hyper- Englishness?
The best that can be said for "Alice" is that it leaves room to wonder. The worst that can be said is that it is rather dull and insular that way, focusing on Dodgson as victim and shortchanging the joy of his creation in favor of the oddity of the person. Here, more attention is given to the worried expressions of Alice's dour mother (Rosalie Crutchley) than what it was Alice and her sisters might have found charming in this clenched, morose, haplessly stammering man.
The teleplay is set around three July days set exactly three years apart from one another. The first, in 1862, involves a picnic when Dodgson told his Alice story to Alice Liddell and her two sisters. In 1865, we see Dodgson presenting a distracted Alice with a first edition of his published work. Finally, in 1868, there's an awkward picnic with mature Alice, now more interested in her boyfriend than those "Wonderland" stories.
While the surface story might seem the passage of time as reflected by Alice's jaded ingratitude, the pedophilia angle gets much play. It's hard not to cringe at Dodgson's attempts at endearment with Alice. "I do love to hear you laugh, Alice," Baker says, his strong stammer in overdrive, "it's the prettiest sound I know." He's so sheepish with her it's pretty uncomfortable watching.
Yet Potter doesn't go all the way with the notion of something indelicate underfoot; instead it's suggested more by Baker's sometimes heavy manner and how director Gareth Davies goes for a pregnant close-up of Alice's mother whenever the matter of Dodgson's activity around her daughter is raised.
"Alice" can also be read as Dodgson's problems with the rampage of time, both on girls who become women and on institutions like Oxford, which Alice's father is hard at work trying to modernize against Dodgson's hidebound wishes. Here Baker seems to play Dodgson more as the injured party, particularly after his attempt to dedicate his "Wonderland" book to Alice directly is rebuffed by her family.
Ultimately, the riddle of Lewis Carroll here gets a bit of teasing but no solution. "I get the impression he is harboring some great and secret disappointment," says Alice's father (David Langton, giving the best performance here), regarding Dodgson. That disappointment seems to permeate the entire teleplay, leaving one feeling a bit let down at the lack of closure.
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