RetroReviews #47: Dreamchild (1985)

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JULY 4, 2013 SCREENING: DREAMCHILD (1985)

It was Independence Day in the United States, and I – a fourth generation America – watched a film that was a complete character study about a Victorian-era British figure: Lewis Carroll. I’m honestly surprised no other films have been made about the man behind Alice in Wonderland besides this film. It might serve as a nice companion piece to the bio pics about L. Frank Baum (Dreamer of Oz, 1990) and J. M. Barrie (Finding Neverland, 2004). On the other hand, Dreamchild is probably a little darker and mysterious than the latter two. That’s very suitable to Lewis Carroll, in my opinion. Much is made about the alleged political allegory in Alice in Wonderland, or whether Lewis Carroll was on drugs while writing it (he wasn’t), but not much is made about Carroll’s personal life and what he was like as a person. Dreamchild chooses to focus on that, but seems to only touch the surface.

The structure of the film is set in the 1930s New York when 80 year old “Mrs. Hartgraves” (as Alice Liddell is now known after her husband passed away) arrives as the guest of honor of Lewis Carroll’s 100th birthday celebration. Of course, he is long since dead, so she is there as the real life Alice that the book character was inspired by. Mrs. Hartgraves has mixed feelings about discussing her childhood relationship with Rev. Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll), as its obviously something she is not comfortable remembering. The film jumps back and forth between the 1930s and 1860s, and it becomes clear that that Rev. Dodgson was infatuated with her.

What the film basically dances around is the idea of whether Lewis Carroll was a pedophile. This is always a touchy subject for films, While Dreamchild heavily suggests that he loved Alice and was obsessed with her, it never dives into much more controversial matters like the fact that Lewis Carroll used to take nude photographs of children, nor is there a hint of any sexual interest in his behavior. The film just hammers home the idea that Carroll, a middle aged man, was deeply attached to a 10 year old girl, and she’s still haunted by that fact 70 years later. To convey her internal psychology, the film uses warped versions of Alice in Wonderland characters (the Mad Hatter, the Caterpillar, etc.), who appear to be haunting Mrs. Hartgraves memories. When the movie ends, the central question of what exactly was the relationship between Alice and Lewis Carroll is never resolved.

Given the lack of evidence in real life, its probably best the film didn’t draw a conclusion either way, although it did fail to drive in numerous aspects of Carroll’s personal life (he was a deacon at a church, a mathematician at Oxford University, etc.) It touches on his talent for photography, and even hints at something sinister with its musical score during those scenes, but all the photography scenes with children as the subject matter are pretty G-rated. Apparently the film also originally fleshed out Alice and her sister’s relationship with their father, who mistrusted Rev. Dodgson, but the director hated the actor who was cast as the father, and cut those scenes out. Instead, the film pads its running time with a fictional romance story between Alice’s granddaughter and a New York newspaper editor. I can’t say I was against those scenes – they worked well on film and helped make the drama last longer, but they added nothing to the main story and nothing would be lost by deleting them (aside from only having a 1 hour movie).

So in spite of the fact that this film failed to address a lot of topics about Lewis Carroll’s life, and in spite of its awkward structuring and useless romantic subplot in the 1930s, overall I think it was a very strong movie, and what’s more, a very unique one. It chose a very complex controversial figure as its subject matter, and it gave us a very haunting and beautiful take on the impact his life had on others. What’s more, Ian Holms is wonderful as Lewis Carroll (even though he was around 50 when this was made, and the real Lewis Carroll was about 30 when the events take place), and both the 10 year old Alice and her 80 year old counterpart put in terrific performances as well, and made me believe they were Alice Liddle. This film is a character study, with some fantasy elements added for dramatic effect. In that respect, it complete nails what its trying to do.

*** out of ****

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