Alice Through the Looking Glass

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Matt Lucas, Rhys Ifans, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen

Director: James Bobin

Writer: Linda Woolverton

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one of my favourite stories and I absolutely love the Disney cartoon to death. Although this story has been adapted to the big screen time and time again, the 1951 animation is one of the only true successes. Disney understood that it is the madness that makes Wonderland work and fully embraced it. Wonderland is a world of nonsense where logic and reason go to die. It is a world where up is down, black is white and wrong is right. The fun comes from watching the rational, level-headed Alice attempt to apply reason to her encounters only to get lost in the insanity of it all. This is something that the Disney cartoon appreciates but that the 2010 Tim Burton film does not. Here the ingenious surrealism of Carroll’s work takes a backseat to something altogether more boring and trite: prophecies, politics and civil war. The film didn’t work because it attempted to introduce logic and sense to a world where it didn’t belong and created a story that was illogical and nonsensical. Sadly the sequel makes the exact same mistake.

Three years after taking over her father’s role in his trading company, Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) returns from China to find that she will lose her family home unless she agrees to sell her ship and stake in the company. Unable to cope with this ultimatum, Alice runs away and happens upon Absolem (Alan Rickman) who leads through a mirror back into Wonderland (I refuse to call this world by the name they use in these films). There the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), the Tweedles (Matt Lucas), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and all her other friends inform her that the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is in poor health due to the loss of his family in the Jabberwocky attack. Alice sets out to meet Father Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) and persuade him save the Hatter’s family. After he turns her down Alice takes the Chronosphere and travels into the past herself to change history. Time however is hot on her heels and is intent on stopping her before she destroys the very fabric of the universe.

Everything that was wrong in the previous film is wrong in this one. The colours are a little brighter and there are occasional glimpses of a world that actually resembles the Wonderland from Carroll’s stories but nevertheless the core problems remain the same. There is no madness, no wonder and no magic in this movie. Wonderland is a world of nonsense inhabited by crazy and fantastic characters where strange and wonderful things happen; being in Wonderland should feel like being in a dream. Instead the film tries to bring you down to Earth with its stories of Alice’s struggles as an independent woman in the oppressive Victorian world and of the tragic histories of the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen. If there has ever been a franchise that should not be restrained by the confines of a plot, Alice in Wonderland is it. A plot by its very nature has to be logical, coherent and structured. Wonderland is none of those things. Ironically the film is also none of these things but for the wrong reasons!

The film introduces the concept of time travel which should have made for an incredible adventure by allowing Alice to explore an entirely new dimension of Wonderland’s insanity. But then we learn that there are rules that have to be followed because the past cannot be allowed to change and paradoxes cannot be allowed to happen or else the very fabric of the universe will be undone or something like that. To make matters worse the film decided to introduce even more logic into the universe by explaining why some of these characters became “mad” in the first place. I really wish this film had a face that I could slap because it infuriates me how they can take something so wonderful, fun and creative and produce such a bland, clichéd and joyless story. This very idea of the Mad Hatter having father issues or the feud between the Red and White Queens being caused by some terrible secret is just so galling to me as it stomps over everything that made the original stories fun. It isn’t imaginative, inventive or surreal; it’s just overdone and dull.

Wasikowska’s Alice continues to be disinterested in the world around her and the incidents she experiences. She turns in the same one-note performance that made her a bore in the first film even though the film wants her to be some kind of strong, spirited figure who defies 19th century norms. Putting aside that I’m not convinced a feminist message is warranted in a story that has no point, the character in this film does not earn this status in any meaningful way. Many of the side characters from the first film return in this latest instalment and, if you enjoyed any of them the first time around, I suppose you’ll like them fine here. For me the only one who even came close to resembling her literary counterpart, and by extension the only one I found to be at all enjoyable, was Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen. Father Time is the biggest new character they introduce and he is actually quite interesting at first with his clockwork design and Werner Herzog accent. However there’s nothing about his personality that stands out because, just like the rest of the characters, it’s too grounded in logic and reason.

The kindest thing I can really say about this film is that it didn’t enrage me as much as the first film did. At least this time the drab, grey world of “Underland” (God, how I hate that name) has been replaced by actual colour. There was also the odd occasion when a character would actually do something that their character would do, that is something strange and nonsensical. Overall however this film was a bore and a displeasure to watch from beginning to end. It has next to nothing to do with the inspired, fantastical world that came from Carroll’s imagination and fails to conjure up anything even remotely interesting, fun or creative to take its place. It fails to capture that sense of imagination and wonder that is so crucial to making Wonderland the dream-like adventure that it should be. I believe that one of the most offensive things a film can possibly do is take a story that holds immeasurable promise and possibilities and then squanders it. This is why Alice Through the Looking Glass is such an offensive movie to me. The only reason this film even exists is to capitalise on the success of its equally infuriating predecessor. This film is unimaginative and lifeless and is entirely unworthy of the material it is based on.

Crimson Peak

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunman, Jim Beaver

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins

When the film’s protagonist shows the manuscript of a novel she has written to a would-be publisher, he expresses his confusion over what he labels as a ghost story. She replies that it is not a ghost story but a story with a ghost in it. Guillermo del Toro is no stranger to the depiction of supernatural beings in his films but to label them, along with other films of this type, as ‘ghost stories’ does not do them justice. The ghosts of these stories often come in figurative forms as well as literal and are not simply there to provide scares. Ghosts often appear in a certain place because of an emotional attachment they have and, while scary, are not manifestations of evil. Instead they can appear as manifestations of fear, loss, grief, pain and other themes we associate with death. True evil instead lies in the hearts of men, the ones who create these ghosts. The ghosts are not the focus of these stories but are instead there to reinforce and enhance the emotional journey or conflict taking place. This is the type of story that Crimson Peak is trying to tell.

The story is that of Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) who as a young girl was visited by her mother’s ghost and was warned to “beware of Crimson Peak”. Now a young woman, Edith is an aspiring author very much in the vein of Mary Shelley. She is also at the age when she must start thinking of marriage and catches the eye of the alluring English baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Edith’s father Carter (Jim Beaver) senses something awry about Thomas and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and so tries to prevent any sort of a union between him and his daughter. When Carter dies under mysterious circumstances a grieving Edith weds Thomas and goes to live with him and his sister in the rotting, decaying estate of Allerdale Hall. Edith however learns that this estate is haunted by ghosts both literal and metaphorical and starts to suspect that this forbidding place might be connected to the warning she received all those years ago.

One thing that Guillermo del Toro has stressed while promoting this film is that it is not a gothic horror, but a gothic romance. The film certainly has elements of horror such as the haunting atmosphere, the sinister characters and elements of the supernatural. However the focus of the film is not on them but on the romance between Edith and Thomas and on the terrible secret that he and his sister share. In any case I cannot think of any director working today who is better at depicting gothic settings and themes than del Toro. The production and style of this film harkens back to such classics as The Innocents, Black Sunday and the works of Roger Corman. The antiquated sets, costumes and visuals are all wonderfully dark and mystifying. The film makes gorgeous use of colour with an ominous emphasis on red, reminiscent of the Hammer Horror films. The atmosphere del Toro creates, complete with the looming shadows, eerie environment and melancholy music, is thoroughly absorbing and is a refined homage to the fine line-up of gothic cinema that has preceded this film. I really wish I could say that the story and characters were worthy of them.

The central romance of this film just didn’t do it for me. I thought it felt quite melodramatic and flat and that neither character had much going for them despite the great talent behind them. Mia Wasikowska is a formidable actress and has done great work in the past but she keeps making the mistake of starring in films that require her to look impassive and disinterested at all the action around her. Her lack of personality made her journey less compelling and her motives less identifiable. Tom Hiddleston has shown that he knows how to do creepy and charming well and while that does come across with this character it just never felt to like there was any life beneath it all. I never felt any of the passion or fire between these two that is clearly supposed to be there. Jessica Chastain delivers a campy, over-the-top performance but at least she looks like she’s having fun doing it. Once you have a clear idea of who each person is the story itself becomes fairly predictable and steals much away from the film’s mysteriousness.

This is a film that I admired more than I enjoyed. I admire del Toro as a director whose inventive imagination, meticulous attention to detail and uncanny command of mood and tone has been employed to spellbinding effect in such films as Pan’s Labyrinth. The atmosphere he evokes in Crimson Peak is haunting and beautiful, just like gothic cinema should be. The characters however seem lifeless in comparison and the story less engaging. What results is a film that is moody and atmospheric on the outside but dispassionate and hollow within. Audiences might enjoy this film for the visual spectacle but the romance and the mystery left me feeling overall underwhelmed.