Opening Weekend: ’Alice in Wonderland,’ ’Ghost Writer,’ ’A Prophet’

Going underground with Depp, Polanski and the Corsican Mafia
The shape-shifting Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter

Now that the Blockbuster Winter Games are history, it’s back to the showbiz grind.  As Opening Weekend returns after an Olympic hiatus,  all I really want to do is rant about the Closing Ceremonies—and how patriotism, which can inspire such brilliant heroics in sports, is a disastrous incentive for art, especially comedy. Gotta love Neil Young. But how sad it was to see Canadian movie stars like Catherine O’Hara and Michael J. Fox miscast as stadium stand-up comics, scrambling to find their bearings in this woefully misdirected spectacle of Canuck self-consciousness. (Andrew Coyne’s live blog) tells a different story, so I guess you had to be there.) Don’t get me wrong. I loved these larger-than-life Olympics, the Games that is, but frankly I’ll be happy if I don’t hear the word “Canadian” again for quite some time, now that it has become a brand, adopted by everyone from Coke to Walmart. . . OK, that’s my belated rant. Time to move on.

This weekend’s crop of new releases brings us three very different tales of imprisonment.  Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which updates Lewis Carroll’s tale of a girl trapped in a wild dream, turns out to be a bit of a disappointment, despite superb performances.  From the infamous Roman Polanski comes The Ghost Writer,  a claustrophobic thriller about a scribe enduring a figurative house arrest on an island while writing an ex-politician’s memoirs—ironic considering Polanski finished the film while under literal house arrest himself. It’s a playful potboiler, riddled with trademark touches of vintage Polanski. Then there’s A Prophet, a powerful prison drama from France about an French-Arab inmate who struggles to survive under the yoke of a Corsican godfather. Of these three films, it’s the strongest; when it premiered in Cannes, many expected it to win the Palme d’Or, and though the prize went to The White Ribbon it was the highest-rated film in competition among critics polled.

Alice in Wonderland

This Disney film is in 3-D, and that’s the first big hurdle for the viewer to overcome. The quality of the 3-D is quite inferior to what we’ve recently become accustomed to. The images seem to consist of flat 2-D planes,  and it was both annoying and unconvincing. I didn’t find out the reason for this until after I’d seen the movie. I later learned that Burton shot the movie in 2-D, then “dimensionalized” it in post-production. Well, after we’ve been enchanted by the immersive visuals of Avatar, this half-baked approach to 3-D seems second-rate. The problem is, there are enough parallels between Alice and Avatar that one can’t help but compare them. Both movies take place in fantasy worlds populated by bizarre creatures. At one point in Alice there are even little fluffy seeds that float down through the air, just like the seeds from the Tree of Souls in Avatar, but less magical. Once you’ve seen the bright lights of Pandora, it’s hard to go back to the cool, diorama-like visuals of a world that, from the costumes to the curlicues,  seems generically Burton-esque.

Adapting Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, screenwriter  Linda Woolverton has re-imagined Lewis Carroll’s work so that Alice is now all grown-up, a distraught 19-year-old who’s being pushed into a undesirable engagement. As she tumbles down the rabbit hole, she’s re-visiting the Wonderland of her childhood dreams, and discovers that it’s actually called Underland. And so a Victorian fable is equipped with Freudian retro-vision, as Alice, a young woman with a mind of her own,  is transformed into a  pro-feminist heroine. Although the story remains set in Victorian times, harnessing Carroll’s surreal vision with an modern moral framework does seem  dubious. It’s as if Burton has made his deal with the Disney Devil.

Given that original story is all about Alice growing taller and smaller, however, the idea of a grown-up Alice does not seem like such a stretch. And it does allow for the casting of the compelling Australian actress Mia Wasikowska in the title role. Best known for playing a psychiatric patient in the first season of HBO’s In Treatment, Wasikowska brings a hard-headed complexity the character, without entirely losing Alice’s core quality of childlike naivete.

The strength of Alice lies in the performances of its exceptional cast. Wasikowska leads an ensemble that include a tart-tongued Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, a dreamy Anne Hathaway as her sister, the White Queen, a wry Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, Alan Rickman as a sublimely opiated Blue Caterpillar—and, of course, Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. By now, Depp is to Burton what Robert De Niro was to Scorsese, something the French like to call a filmmaker’s acteur fetiche. It’s Burton who first transformed him with Edward Scissorhands, and Depp has not stopped shape-shifting since. And it makes you wonder if he will ever again play a “normal” human being. As with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Depp undergoes a cirque-like transformation with costume, make-up and accent. His main inflection is a lightning Scottish burr, which skitters all over the place—only appropriate given that he is, after all, the Mad Hatter. Depp unleashes yet another virtuoso performance, acting with an effortless grace that seems second nature. And there’s a significant homage to Scissorhands in this pale character’s quicksilver moments and delicate vulnerability.

But Depp’s performance is richer and more coherent than the film itself—a rather laborious narrative that careens through a string of set pieces without transporting us. Wasikowska makes a splendid Alice, though she too seems over-qualified for the script: this actress deserves a more wonderful wonderland. And while Depp is blithely creating a world of his own,  genius protege expanding on a repertoire of related characters, it feels like Burton is simply repeating himself in the safe confines of the Magic Kingdom.

Pierce Brosnan (left) and Ewan McGregor in Polanski's 'The Ghost Writer.'

The Ghost Writer

The door opens to a ferryboat, a giant maw, threatening us from the opening image. The cars empty out but one remains, without its driver. A body is washed up on the seashore. Thus begins The Ghost Writer, the movie Roman Polanski was trying to finish as the director’s own ghosts came back to haunt him with his arrest for a 33-year-old crime of having unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. The movie stars Ewan McGregor in the role of the ghost writer who is hired to replace the corpse, and the actor formerly known as Bond, Pierce Brosnan, in the role of the retired British Prime Minister whose memoirs are being ghost-written. But the real star of the movie is Polanski, and not just because of the controversy that has been swirling around him. With the possible exception of The Pianist (2002), ever since the Polish-born filmmaker fled the United States, he has not lived up to the brilliance he displayed in the 1960s and 70s. That may be a result of trying to make Hollywood movies while being exiled from Hollywood’s resources. Whatever the reason, with pedestrian work like Frantic and Bitter Moon, Polanski’s ventures over the past three decades has not been terribly ambitious. The Ghost Writer is no exception. It’s an overripe conspiracy thriller knotted with an unlikely twist. But it’s certainly compelling enough. The suspense is taut. Riding this hairpin narrative with McGregor at the wheel is a lot of fun. And with it comes a payload of Polanski’s familiar obsessions, and some pointed references to his classic films.

The director’s number-one obsession is water, and The Ghost Writer is drenched in it. From beginning to end, it almost never stops raining. Although Hollywood’s most celebrated fugitive shot the movie entirely in Europe (for obvious reasons), most of the story takes place on an island off America’s eastern seaboard. Jon Bernthal (McGregor) has been hired to do a quickie, high-priced rewrite of the memoir that his mysteriously dead predecessor left behind. He is summoned to the island home of Adam Lang (Brosnan), a Tony Blair type figure who has become a target of controversy for abetting torture in the Iraq war. The ex-politician’s house is a modernist concrete bunker staffed by a couple of Asian housekeepers who could be inbred descendants of the gardener in Chinatown—especially in one amusing scene that shows the man trying to sweep debris from the beachfront patio in the middle of a windstorm).

As the writer, a cynic who views his situation with a mounting sense of absurdity, McGregor nicely embodies the director’s own wit. The actor’s intelligence is palpable. The starchy Brosnan is credibly cast as an opaque pawn of dark forces that the movie will spend its time unraveling. Olivia Williams gives a whip-smart performance as Brosnan’s shrewd, disaffected wife. And Canadian Kim Cattrall (Sex and the City) is typecast as his glam bitch of an executive assistant/mistress, affecting an English accent that is oddly unconvincing considering that Cattrall is British-born.

Niels Arestrup (left) and Tahar Rahim in 'A Prophet'

A Prophet

This visceral prison movie from French director Jacques Audiard is the story of  an illiterate 19-year-old named Malik (Tahar Rahim) who is convicted of assaulting a police officer. It’s his second offence, and his first as an adult. He’s slapped with a six-year jail term without really knowing what he’s done wrong. The prison yard is divided down the middle between Corsican and Arab gangs. Malik falls prey to the  ruling Corsican mafia, led by Cesar (Niels Arestrup), a godfather figure who enlists the boy by forcing him to kill an Arab inmate who’s due to testify in a trial.  Cesar makes Malik his slave. And as he undergoes this incarcerated coming-of-age ordeal, Malik learns to survive by his wits, and eventually to prevail. Yes, he acquires literacy, but his world is a long way from the Oprah-friendly turf of Precious.

From the boy’s gruesome initiation—a fountain of blood arcs from the neck of a man he dispatches with a razor blade hidden in his mouth—I had trouble warming to the film. A matter of taste.  But there’s no question that A Prophet is a potent drama, and an exceptionally lucid slice of social realism: France’s answer to Gomorrah. Rahim’s performance in the all-consuming lead role is superb. In a medium that is largely designed for escape, prison dramas are counter-intuitive. Like submarine movies, they exploit the claustrophobia of a captive audience. Which is why they tend to be long. A Prophet is two-and-a-half hours. The idea, I suppose, is that by the time you leave the cinema, you really feel you’ve served hard time, and in this case you’ve also tested your intelligence in an attempt to keep up with the Byzantine plot. A challenge for the body and the mind, but not boring for a second.

There’s a scene in the final act where Malik is on day parole, doing Mafia business, and pays a quick visit to a Mediterranean beach. Dazzled by the sun and waves, he lets the sand sift through his fingers. I first saw this film, at its morning press premiere, in Cannes and as I staggered out of  the darkness of the theatre, I was blinded by the noonday sun. Squinting out over that same Mediterranean that the protagonist had enjoyed onscreen moments earlier, I began to appreciate what had just passed before my eyes. It wasn’t a whole lot of  fun at the time, but it was utterly compelling. It never felt less than real. And months later, it sits well. You learn things in prison.