April 2nd, 2008


Alice's adventures in 1866 and 1966

The best film version of Alice in Wonderland (which may be the most original work of fiction in the English language) is one you've probably never heard of, directed in 1966 by a tall Jewish atheist dilettante with a stratospheric intelligence. That director is Jonathan Miller, and he filled his undeservedly unfamous Alice with cameos from famous friends -- Peter Sellers, Malcolm Muggeridge, Alan Bennett, Eric Idle, Peter Cook. The film was made as a BBC Wednesday Play, with a freedom from commercial pressures today's BBC (let alone the film world beyond) could only dream of.

Miller's reading of Alice doesn't attempt to be "timeless" -- he fills the film with serene sitar music by 60s countercultural hero Ravi Shankar, and Alice's Eat Me and Drink Me experiences are made even more psychedelic by the use of wide-angle lenses, backwards sequences, disorienting editing, mirrors, and wide-eyed expressions from the beautiful Anne-Marie Mallik. But the Victorian house and garden setting is impeccable, filled with stuffed animals, tailor's dummies, gothic stained glass, greenhouses and croquet lawns, and the dusty saurian ectomorphs Alice encounters are the furthest thing you could imagine from 1960s hippies.

1866 and 1966 combine surprisingly well -- Shankar's music reminds one that the Britain of 1866 was intimately connected to its imperial dependency, India -- ruled over, in fact, by an "Empress of India" named Victoria, a more sedate version of the murderous Queen of Hearts, seen in this sequence demanding the decapitation of a bodiless cat:

Miller shares Carroll's Oxbridge background and his interest in abstruse, absurdist philosophising, if not his Christianity and his preoccupation with pubescent girls. So both Carroll's and Miller's Alices are filled with fanciful philosophical speculations, usually explained by very old men to very young girls. In 19th century Oxbridge this seems to have been very much in the air: in 1866 John Ruskin published The Ethics of the Dust: Ten Lectures to Little Housewives on the Elements of Chrystallisation. A sample of the dialogue:

Old Lecturer (of incalculable age): What is it to be alive?

Dora (aged 17 "on astronomical evidence"): There now; you're going to be provoking, I know.

Lecturer: I do not see why it should be provoking to be asked what it is to be alive. Do you think you don't know whether you are alive or not?

Isabel (11 years old) skips to the end of the room and back.

Lecturer: Yes, Isabel, that's all very fine; and you and I may call that being alive: but a modern philosopher calls it being in a "mode of motion." It requires a certain quantity of heat to take you to the sideboard; and exactly the same quantity to bring you back again. That's all.

Isabel: No, it isn't. And besides, I'm not hot.

Lecturer: I am, sometimes, at the way they talk.

Oddly enough, when Lewis Carroll fell out with Alice Liddell's mother, Ruskin (a good friend of Carroll's) took over the role of favourite non-family uncle.

These skittish philosophical investigations don't just represent Cambridge dons' playful, eccentric attitude to knowledge (an attitude still intact when Miller graduated from the university in 1957, then went straight into the Footlights review as a comedian) or a friskily ludic relationship between age and youth, they also express the existential growing pains of a girl of Alice's age. Miller captures this perfectly in a scene where Alice questions her own identity before a mirror. As Ravi Shankar's sensual notes and rhythms fade, Alice brushes her hair and whispers: "I'm sure I'm not Ada. She's got long ringlets, and my hair doesn't grow in ringlets at all. And I'm sure I can't be Mabel, cos I know all sorts of things, and she knows nothing. Besides, she's she, and I... Oh dear, how puzzling it all is." It's a puzzle drugs and encounters with dons can't clarify for the petulant Alice, although they do distract her from her own confusion.

Miller only ever made one other film (1968's Whistle and I'll Come to You), and Mallik doesn't appear anywhere in public after incarnating Alice. Miller's brilliant dilettantism took him to other activities -- opera productions, gay rights activism, a series of television science lectures, writing, medicine. Perhaps he, like Alice, has never really known who he is, and perhaps he finds the existential puzzle more interesting than the solution.