On Screen: Dreamchild

Written by Dennis Potter

Directed by Gavin Millar

A Universal Picture

It’s odd. At a time when most movies are made for teenagers, and are as frantic as a game of Pac-Man and as disposable as Kleenex, not one but two movies in current release (from the same studio!) feature superb performances by actors playing authors of minor, eccentric genius.

No matter what Out of Africa‘s limitations are (described at length in the March issue), Meryl Streep is wonderfully convincing as Karen Blixen, a.k.a. Isak Dinesen. No matter how plebian the script tries to make Blixen, Streep, with her lovely, sharp witch’s face, and slightly out-of-tune voice, gives us a woman who might conceivably write a masterpiece. Streep does exactly what any actor must do when playing a genius, especially an artistic genius: she makes the character approachable while keeping her ultimately unknowable. We are drawn to this Karen Blixen and can comprehend her rage at the folly of the men who surround her, and her simultaneous desires to be free of love and to be possessed by it. Most of all, Streep makes us understand that Karen Blixen felt herself to be literally a gifted person — that is to say, not just a woman with a talent but a woman who has received the gift of Africa, the gift of what its tribes call its “clear darkness.” That phrase could also describe Streep’s performance. She makes the woman who would become Isak Dinesen one of us and yet too much for us: too knowing, too certain of what she knows. A spider confident of the web that is within her.

In another Universal release, Dreamchild, Ian Holm gives us a Charles Dodgson thoroughly capable of becoming Lewis Carroll. Again the approachability, again the opacity. Dodgson, of course, was in most ways the opposite of Blixen. Far from being flamboyant, he was a huddled soul who could only free himself from his stammer in the company of children, especially little girls. This need has provoked much pseudo-Freudian snickering, but this fine unostentatious film makes us understand that Dodgson’s desires, if perverse, were magnanimously perverse. He needed nothing from children except their good regard and rapt attention. If Africa and Denys Finch Hatton were the gifts that Isak Dinesen celebrated and crystallized into gothic novellas and anecdotes of destiny, then the timeless stillness of summer days spent rowing on a river near Oxford and the enthusiasm of the Liddell girls were the blessings Lewis Carroll sought to be worthy of, and to memorialize, with his Alice books.

To create such a man with such needs and such gifts must have been a daunting project; yet Ian Holm manages it to perfection. He’s short and stocky (you may remember him best as the Arab-Italian running coach in Chariots of Fire) while Dodgson was tall and spare, and yet whenever he’s on screen, the don Dodgson and the fantasist Carroll are simultaneously there. It has something to do with the stillness and rigidity with which the actor holds his body, as if he were constantly stiffening himself to receive a blow. For such shy men, life must have many blows, some of them delivered by the outside world, some self-inflicted. Each movement of Holmes’s eyes, toward and away from objects that interest him, toward and away from the people he wants to touch, is an act of the greatest courage. The stammer the actor affects never seems a virtuoso acting stunt but a true rendering of Dodgson’s very breath, abashedly trying to form itself into words and sentences. This is a perfect little gem of a performance.

And Dreamchild is a little gem of a movie. Its true protagonist isn’t Carroll but Alice Liddell herself, an eighty-year-old dowager who comes, in 1932, to New York City to appear at the centenary celebration of Dodgson’s birth at Columbia University. The big city stuns this patrician, opinionated lady, yet she learns to cope, helped by a hotshot newspaper reporter who both exploits her and rescues her from her own crotchets. Retreating into herself during moments of panic, Alice flashes back to the days just after the publication of the Wonderland book, when its author was trying to present it to his little muse.

But little girls can be as cruel as Africa. Before the eighty-year-old Alice can come to terms with the great gift Carroll made her, she must remember and repent the moment on a riverbank when she mocked the stuttering author as he tried to recite a piece of his work to her. Prodding Alice into this painful remembrance are the Wonderland characters (as designed by puppeteer Jim Hensen of Sesame Street). These are not the charming creations of the Tenniel drawings, but monsters with rotten teeth, greenish skin, and reddened eyelids. They are childhood fantasies driven mad by guilt and they hurt old Alice into remembering the momentary torment she inflicted on their creator. But once she does so, she is also able to remember that the moment of childish cruelty was immediately followed by a moment of compassion.

At peace with herself, the aged Alice can at last respond to Carroll’s great gift as Goethe told us we must respond to such gifts: “In the face of the great superiority of another person, there is no means of safety but love.”


  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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