You just can’t pin Michael Winterbottom down. After such wildly different projects as psycho road movie Butterfly Kiss, Thomas Hardy adaptation Jude, war-corr adventure Welcome To Sarajevo and the Hastings-noir of I Want You, it’s hardly surprising that no one knows what to make of the director. It’s equally unsurprising that his reputation is much greater in France, where they like serious cineastes, than in Britain, where the Hollywood-sucking pleasures of Guy Ritchie’s Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels has more impact. Winterbottom is too prolific, too eclectic and, arguably, too much his own man to be our cup of tea.
Wonderland isn’t going to change that. But that’s the problem. For the film, which is already attracting comparisons with Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, confirms Winterbottom as a major talent.
While it may lack the sweep and panache of Altman’s masterpiece, the parallels are obvious: just as Short Cuts follows its disparate characters as they criss-cross paths in a brilliantly realised Los Angeles, so Wonderland observes three sisters, their spouses and friends as they haunt the bars and cafes, bingo halls and football grounds, parks and grotty estates of London. The city itself has never been so well portrayed: it’s exciting and banal, beautiful and grimy, enticing and as intimidating as hell.
Winterbottom combines two very different approaches to great effect. On one hand, he shot documentary style – using a tiny crew, radio-miking his actors, filming in locations as they went about their usual business – that adds a Ken Loach-like verité to his story. On the other hand, he employs slo-mo and stop-motion effects, and a stirring soundtrack by Michael Nyman, to evoke a sense of magic in the city. With a best-of-British cast, Winterbottom shows that, however drab someone’s life on the outside, their aspirations and dreams can be far more special.