Mad Hatter: Have I gone mad?
Alice: I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.
Nearly 150 years after Lewis Carroll published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Tim Burton’s adaption of the story hit the big screen. With a star-packed cast, Burton’s expertise and Disney’s financial clout the film was set to be a classic, but despite being written by the hugely talented Linda Woolverton (Maleficent, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast) the film was roundly criticised for its narrative short-comings.
Yet far from being a re-hash of Carroll’s work, what Burton did with Alice in Wonderland is craft the original elements of novels to tell an empowering female coming-of-age story. This is not a film for children, nor is it really a film for adults. It is to be most clearly realised and understood as a film for a teenage audience, most specifically a teenage female audience. The trailer for James Bobin’s sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass (released this Friday) shows Alice being committed for a ‘case of female hysteria’, which even more directly calls out the gendered theme in Alice in Wonderland.
Within the first 10 minutes of the film it is clear how the now 19-year-old Alice struggles to fit in the restrictive patriarchal Victorian society. To her mother’s displeasure she refuses to wear stockings or a corset, she muses about the idea of the women wearing trousers and the men wearing dresses, and whereas as her father’s impossible thoughts has him branded as a ‘visionary’ any ideas she has must be silenced. This struggle is brought to a head when she is faced with a marriage proposal by snooty whey-faced Hamish. It is here that she runs off and falls down the rabbit hole into the decaying ‘Underland’ – the same world she visited before but which she has no memory of.
A seamless mix of live action and animation, Underland is a beautifully detailed haunting apocalyptic world worthy of appreciation in its own right. Yet beneath this Burton-style madness there are two obstacles facing Alice. The first is the fight within Alice herself, between what society wishes her to do (accept the proposal) and what Alice wants to do (something she has yet to figure out or perhaps something she has forgotten). This takes form in the film through her realisation of herself as ‘the right Alice’. The second obstacle is to slay the Jabberwocky.
Throughout the adventure Alice claims that she is the ‘wrong Alice’ and denies being the same girl who fell down the rabbit hole all those years ago. She is certainly not the Alice who it is foretold will slay the Jabberwocky. Alice’s inability to remember herself as that young child in ‘Wonderland’, and her refusal to see as herself as a champion who could slay the Jabberwocky, reflect the inner turmoil of a 19-year-old girl who doesn’t know who she is. Alice has changed from the enquiring confident little girl of her previous adventures to an uncertain teenager. It is telling that in her final discussion with Absolem (Alan Rickman), the wise caterpillar, it is only through her describing her past, of her father’s heritage, and the dreams that he, and she use to have, that she ‘finds herself’ and realises that she is, indeed, the right Alice.
This fight which has now been resolved within Alice must be cemented by the physical action of her slaying the Jabberwocky. This empowerment is made all more the poignant by the fact that she is a woman and also an action-hero. Throughout the film the real power has been held by women, and as the two opposing forces ride into battle – Alice in a shining coat of armour above her Bandersnatch (think a wolf / lynx mix made giant) – the lack of a strong male character is noticeable.
Importantly the violent and heroic nature of the feat of slaying the Jabberwocky is not underscored nor ‘feminised’. Alice battles on the scraggy ruins – jumping on the Jabberwocky’s neck she is thrown up against the storm ridden sky and with one decisive motion parrots the Red Queen’s favourite phrase, ‘Off with your head’, as she comes down sword in hand. Internally and externally triumphant, Alice returns to the Upper World where she rejects Hamish’s proposal and instead travels to China to take up her father’s dream of business expansion.
Mia Wasikowska is brilliant in the title role. Her version of Alice is at once strong and changeable, determined and directionless, sometimes surly but nearly always kind – the kind of nuanced character rarely developed for female roles. In fact both the other two leading female roles, the Red Queen and the White Queen, are well acted and complex. The Red Queen, played by Helena Bohemian Carter, is a mad, violent, petulant and coquettish dictator who quotes Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince: “It is much safer to be feared than loved.” Anne Hathaway takes a gothic twist on the role of the White Queen, with dark lipstick, red-rimmed eyes and taste for decapitated fingers. Not only are the female characters developed, but also in Alice’s relationship with the Mad Hatter, (dexterously played by Johnny Depp) there lies what seems a radical notion in Hollywood: that men and women can be genuine friends.
Madness and female intelligence have always been closely connected, and the dichotomy of the two worlds in the film – the repressive Victorian society and Underland – hammers this point home. What the film does so well is revel in the idea that madness, far from being something negative, it is tied into creativity and imagination. Although we thankfully no longer live in a society where a woman speaking her mind leads to her being committed to an insane asylum, it is worrying how a film representing a strong female character, thinking outside the boundaries of convention, and independently finding self-determination, is a rarity. Alice in Wonderland is a film that celebrates the thinking of ‘six impossible things before breakfast’ by a sword-wielding heroine, and as such is one worthy of a second chance.