(Michael Winterbottom, 1999)
Two Views of London dominate cinematic portrayals of the City. There is the Touristic fairytale familiar from a dozen romantic comedies, all Big Ben, black cabs, red buses, jobs in Canary Wharf and mews houses. Then there is the seedy underbelly, familiar from the crime genre (warehouses, East End gangster boozers) and social realist portrayals of poverty (tower blocks, crack houses). The middle ground, the commuter suburbs, the lower middle class millions in terraced houses in unremarkable areas, riding the tube and buses to work, shopping in retail parks and watching satellite television, they have been under-represented in modern cinema. Mike Leigh has addressed this territory, in Another Year and Secrets and Lies, but Michael Winterbottom's Wonderland is perhaps the definitive film of this other, real London.
Loosely circling three sisters and their network of friends, family and lovers, Winterbottom's film is largely shot handheld, allowing for a couple of stunningly spontaneous captures of moments in the metropolis; the most obvious being a long shot following a sister as she flees a bad blind date in a pub through a crowded, lairy West End. This is London as it really is, by turns beautiful, bleak, exciting, ugly and exhilarating, but always teeming with vitality and life. Something of the unknowable immensity of the place is communicated too, through the variety of experiences Winterbottom portrays, from neat lives in middle-class suburbia, council estates filled with quiet desperation, urbanite hipsters on the singles scene, tourists in a posh hotel and the loneliness of young commuters, working in service industries and retail jobs in Central London. The writing is acute, and together with some moving performances, it helps the film capture many of these people in recognisable slices of experience. The cast is superb and based on some proven British talent, from Gina McKee and John Simm to Shirley Henderson and Ian Hart.
One of Winterbottom's greatest gifts as a director is an ability to capture moments of fleeting beauty within his loose, energetic style. The verisimilitude never oppresses his sensual appeal, and here is an object lesson: never have some ugly parts of London looked so lovely, and the atmosphere is vivid and effortlessly rendered. The visual style is matched to memorable effect by Michael Nyman's haunting and uplifting soundtrack, a symphony for London itself.