Sunday, 9 January 2011

Supporting Actress Blog-a-Thon: Helena Bonham Carter in Alice in Wonderland

I decided I would offer up a companion piece to my write-up on Tammy Blanchard. She is playing a supporting woman on the sideline and now on to a supporting player with no interest in being supportive. (This too is in lieu of StinkyLulu and his Supporting Actress Blog-a-Thon which goes on all day, so time is still available to write an entry.)
Tim Burton’s disgustingly successful Alice in Wonderland is not without its issues. Although I’m generally fond of it Wolverton’s poor script is a problem that looms over the entire narrative – and my biggest qualm with the blockbuster. Amidst her inability to satisfactorily create resolutions for her characters is the tyrannical Red Queen who – whatever the incarnation – seems to emerge as one of the most interesting creatures of Wonderland Underland. Tim Burton often gets flack for his predilection to use a set of familiar faces continually in his films, and as far as Depp goes it’s an argument I can understand. When it comes to Helena Bonham Carter, though, I’m nonplussed about the argument. Like with Sweeney Todd and Corpse Bride before Bonham Carter’s ability to command the screen is responsible for a great deal of the success in Burton’s piece. Unlike the other two, Alice in Wonderland is not a very strong feature which makes her contributions all the more laudable.

This sort of emotionally stunted diabolical thing is vaguely evocative of her work in Merlin as the similarly perverse Morgan Le Fey – but Wonderland’s Underland’s Queen is a new creation. Even when she was playing the corseted maiden in the early 90s Helena has always has a knack for deadpan humour (Twelfth Night) and her presence alone makes me less tetchy about Alice in Wonderland being labelled a “comedy”. The most obvious scene is the ill-fated meeting between Um (Alice in disguise) and the Queen’s second-in-command, the Knave. She’s terribly overbearing – but it’s hilarious watching her get consistently more annoyed as she tries to convey that Um’s name is Um – and not an inadvertent error on her part. Incidentally, there’s little inherently smart about the scene on paper – but playing the Queen as a sort of perverse child makes Wolverton’s gags more bearable, and even inspired from the right angle. She manages to make the bipolar writing work for her similarly unfocused self, with the same note of anger she will switch to cooing sentimentality as she breathes - “I love a warm pig for my aching feet.” Priceless.
It probably sounds like I’m out to pan her script, but I’ll give Woolverton props for the rare moment of something close to emotional poignancy – although it’s not where you’d expect it. Perhaps it’s Wasikowska’s generally dreariness here, or maybe it’s just another screenplay shortcoming, but Alice’s journey never attains any emotional resonance. The single moment where I’m moved to consider the realness of the characters (aside from Hathaway’s delightfully diabolical good witch) is a conversation between the Red Queen and the Knave (played to perfection by Crispin Glover) and though there is something altogether too pat about the line “It is better to be feared than loved” Helena does the weirdest thing in manging to evoke the biggest laughs and the most striking poignancy in the same film and all this with  that abrasive shrieking tone she uses to characterise the Queen. It would be simple to accuse Bonham Carter of being like the Queen and hogging the spotlight here, but she - like everyone in the cast - is given a script to work with that has palpable issues, she cannot be blamed for doing excellent things with it.
I was somewhat amused when I noticed that she made the BAFTA longlist for her work here. And though the honour of such a mention is quite diluted when clunkers like Ellen Page in Inception, Depp in Alice in Wonderland and performances I still can’t get understand the appeal of like DiCaprion in Inception and Kunis in Black Swan I felt a sort of contentment that I wasn’t the only noticing that amidst it’s craziness there’s good work being done in Alice in Wonderland.


Robert said...

Oh, great write-up. I thought Helena Bonham Carter was just so great in this movie, and you really highlighted why - had it not been for her I think Alice in Wonderland would have just been unbearable.

Candice Frederick said...

ahhhh she was fantabulous in this indeed. great tribute to her performance.

Alex in Movieland said...

oh, I really disliked the film, but I thought she was very funny.

Truth be told, they should make a film just about her character with Helena playing her, of course.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

Great defense, Andrew. If the movie was solely Bonham-Carter and Glover, I might've liked it more. Maybe. Absolutely spot-on about the poignancy of her performance in that scene, it was the one of the few times I felt anything but boredom.

Brandon (Twister) said...

Great write up here!

But I hated this movie so much -- so boring, bland, and just flat that honestly I couldn't even distingish Carter from it or notice her performance enough to possibly enjoy it.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

robert true words, sort of the epitome of an actor saving a movie (well, her glover, hathaway and colleen's costumes.)

candice thank you.

alex that would be nice, but then burton might get sidetracked as he often does (i still like him, though).

walter what did you think of hathaway,though? she was no hbc, but i thought she was lovely.

twister surprised you call it boring. i can understand awful, or terrible but it's so busy i can't see it being boring - at least not visually. the screenplay is a whole other story.

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