Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
Dreamchild is a disarmingly sweet and old-fashioned film. It weaves a fictional story around the real-life relationship between young Alice Liddell’s family and the Reverend Charles Dodgson. We’ve all grown up knowing about this relationship via Alice in Wonderland, which was written by Dodgson… under his pen-name Lewis Carroll.
In this film, written by the controversial Dennis Potter, the elderly Alice Hargreaves is on an ocean liner bound for America, where she has been invited to speak at Columbia University on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Carroll’s birth. She is infirm, and suffering the onset of dementia—and is haunted both by memories of Carroll’s perhaps inappropriate attentions and by the grotesque creatures his mind created, and planted in hers. The Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and others are visualized in Dreamchild by Jim Henson… for whose fans the film is a must-see.
True to life, Ian Holm’s Dodgson is not just a pastor and writer, but a pioneering photographer with a speech impediment. A chance meeting in Oxford leads to a long-standing and sometimes creepy relationship between Dodgson and the Liddell family. As portrayed in the film, it culminates with a focus of Dodgson’s attentions on Alice, and with Alice’s immature (but instinctually wise) rejection of Dodgson.
As Alice nears the end of her life and is being asked to publicly comment on the now-famous Lewis Carroll, and as the Depression-era media obsesses over sensationalist personalities, she comes to grips with her memories of Dodgson’s failings—and her own. Also woven into the story is a budding romance between Alice’s assistant and a journalist.
Even when the film was released 33 years ago, Holm’s depiction of a grown man obsessing over a nine-year-old was disturbing. At the same time, the film legitimately raises the question: Are we predisposed to presume the worst? It is perhaps possible for a lonely man to have a fatherly and pure affection for a girl he wishes were his daughter?
After having seen this film many times (it is one of my favorites), I’m still not sure the film offers an answer to the question, or even tries to provide one despite the fact that it brings the issue to the fore. What I do know is that it movingly gets into the minds of both the young girl and the elderly woman for whom that question was central–and life-transforming.
The performances, particularly by Ian Holm and by Amelia Shankley as the young Alice, are hauntingly nuanced and memorable—despite the clunky distraction of the peripheral Stateside romance. This is a type of film that you are probably not used to seeing, but if it resonates with you I can bet you will not soon forget Dreamchild.