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Alice in Wonderland (1966)

Produced during the centenary year of Lewis Carroll's seminal masterpiece of logic-bending whimsy, Jonathan Miller's dark, incense-scented BBC television interpretation of Alice in Wonderland is a striking and eccentric work, one that reached a level of adult sophistication rare in the long history of "Alice" adaptations. It's an oddity squarely planted in the psychedelic loam of the mid-1960s, complete with lysergic imagery, an untrusting view of the "over 30" realm, and a musical score by sitar master Ravi Shankar. For all that, this may be the most quintessentially English production of the Alice stories ever undertaken. Heightened for opium-dream effect are British classism, ivy-covered academia (a setting familiar to Oxford don Charles Dodgson, a.k.a. Lewis Carroll), and the frayed, soot-gray, gothic trappings of Victoria's Empire in all its repressed decadence. Originally broadcast at 9 pm, after children's bedtime, there's nothing cheery or childish about Miller's Alice, which may make it the truest Alice of them all.

This Alice (13-year-old Anne-Marie Mallik) is no Disneyfied pinafore-clad blonde missy traipsing about a candy-colored world of funny animal characters. Instead, she's a feral-looking teen, a wild child entering (actually and metaphorically) the unsettling, incomprehensible world of grownups, with all their melancholic slavery to literalness and language and convention. The characters Alice encounters — the White Rabbit, the Hatter, and so on — are played by actors without masks or other artificial disguises that would have hidden their performances and crimped the stylized theatricality of Miller's vision. The cast itself is a wonder. We get Wilfrid Brambell as the White Rabbit, Peter Cook's Mad Hatter, John Gielgud's Mock Turtle, Michael Redgrave's Caterpillar, Leo McKern's Duchess, Michael Gough's March Hare, and Peter Sellers' King of Hearts, among others.

There's only one weak spot among the cast, but it's key: Mallik herself. Miller selected the non-actor to steer his Alice away from conventional interpretations. While Mallik's unkempt, brown-haired woman-child is certainly a good look for the part, she's such a flat, passive character that instead of a presence she's a void aching to be filled. This remains her only known role.

Also, the script is a shapeless melange of set-pieces — so is Carroll's book, but the structure is more crippling on film — and a more than passing familiarity with the source material is a prerequisite for determining what's what and who's who throughout the transcendental meditativeness. Still, it revels in Carroll's power of wordplay and mathematical conundrums.

The production is slow but sumptuously mounted. (The rabbit hole is a military hospital corridor plainly inspired by a near-identical shot in Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast.) It benefits from being richly photographed — by cinematographer Dick Bush, a favorite of Ken Russell — on black-and-white 35mm film rather than the color videotape that the BBC desired from the rebellious Miller.

*          *          *

Home Vision Entertainment gives Jonathan Miller's Alice in Wonderland a respectful treatment with a strong, clean print (full-frame 1.33:1) and good monaural audio.

Several welcome supplements are on hand. The first is the audio commentary by director Miller. Although infrequently scene-specific, Miller's track fills in aspects of the production from the beginnings of his unique interpretation to his work with such an august cast. He points out the only two moments of improvisational dialogue that deviate from Carroll's book, bits Miller kept because of their Carrollian spirit.

The second extra is a genuine rarity, the first-ever Alice adaptation committed to film. This presentation of Cecil Hepworth's 1903 silent one-reeler derives from its only known source, an original nitrate print that has deteriorated almost to dust. Nonetheless, this is serious "value added" material for Alicephiles, augmented by an info-packed commentary track by Simon Brown of the British Film Institute.

Also here is photographer Terence Spencer's behind-the-scenes stills gallery of Miller's production. Accompanying the disc is a trifold insert with a revealing essay by author and critic Prof. Wheeler Winston Dixon (University of Nebraska), who lived at Miller's London house for a month or so in the summer of '68. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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