Tuesday, 29 May 2007

James Martin reviews his ten favourite films, Part 2

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
UK 1989
Director: Stuart Orme
Screenwriter: William M. Akers
Runtime: 93 mns
Certificate: PG
Not distributed on DVD

Stuart Orme's adaptation of Joan Aiken's children's novel is more amusing and camp than the book, which was a tearjerker. The drama is no less enjoyable, with a fine cast. Stephanie Beacham plays grasping governess Letitia Slighcarp, who along with port swigging sidekick Mel Smith, attempts to relieve holidaying Lord and Lady Willoughby of their fortune, in front of their helpless, spoilt eight-year old daughter Bonnie (Emily Hudson) and her quiet, well-mannered cousin, Sylvia (Aleks Darowska).

Filmed in winter, in the backdrop of dark, frigid woodland in former Czechoslovakia, this production is visually stunning and the cast has a whale of a time. Beacham, fresh out of Dynasty, flounces about in fussy Victorian dresses, making life a misery for the two girls, whilst teaching them nothing. She packs them off to a grim, industrial workhouse, where they languish under a hilarious drunken "Brisket" (Geraldine James), who casually misinforms them of the Willoughby's death in a sinking. Beacham's best line is "I'd like to see the wolf that could tackle me", which is ironically her gory end.

As a child, I loved this film for the suspense brought about by "the nasty adults and what they'd do next." Now, I appreciate it as a highly entertaining and sweet story, not intended to be hilarious, but which cannot help extracting laughs for its comically gifted cast and ridiculous, far-fetched situations. Understandably, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase received mixed reviews, as it would not be everyone's cup of tea. However, if your sense of humour is at times silly and puerile like mine, you will find that Aiken's book could not have been translated from page to screen with more flair.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
UK 1972
Director: William Sterling
Screenwriter: William Sterling
Runtime: 101 mns
Certificate: PG
DVD distributor: Reel Media International

Of all film productions of Lewis Carroll's novel, William Sterling's is by far the most faithful. This is a lively musical with an all-star cast, including Michael Crawford as the highly-strung, twittering white rabbit. Peter Sellers plays the March hare and Fiona Fullerton makes an impeccably spoken teenage Alice.

The opening scenes are breathtaking. Filmed on location on a verdant Oxfordshire riverbank in high summer, Charles Dodgson (Michael Jayston) begins his tale, sending drowsy Alice into her "curious" dream, an underground world with a pastel pink sky, insane creatures, accusatory playing cards and height-altering mushrooms. John Barry's dreamy score is most effective and complements the beginning, as inquisitive Alice wanders through the opening of a disproportionately large rabbit hole and begins floating down surreally "through the centre of the earth".

This version is so painstakingly true to the written text, where others by Walt Disney (1951) and Harry Harris (1985) are not. It successfully combines nonsensical dialogue with a definite sense of Alice's increasing self-awareness, through songs such as "The Me I Never Knew". Other versions seem to gloss over this part, concentrating solely on the absurd. Fullerton's constant analysis and self-questioning - "I wonder whether I shall land among the antipodes of Australia or New Zealand" or "why, I appear to be shutting up like a telescope"- emphasise the story's most important message. It is all about an adolescent girl's struggle to find meaning in a world which does not always make sense and where adults' actions are often illogical, therefore frustrating. For an avid childhood reader of Lewis Carroll, this film is excellent. It is the only one which convincingly manages to capture that strange dream world and its characters, both visually and audibly.

Read Part 3 tomorrow!

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