Review: Alice Through the Looking Glass with Edible Cinema


It’s no secret that I adore the Alice in Wonderland aesthetic. As with so many tea fans and cat lovers – not to mention flamingo obsessives – I’m drawn to the twee and the fantastic, the essential Britishness. I went to the British Library exhibit earlier this year, and I’ve already assigned the animated take on the Cheshire Cat as my favourite Disney character of all time (we have both Disney and Tenniel Christmas ornaments to prove it). Mary Blair’s concept work on Alice is basically the artwork I’d produce if I had any sort of talent, let alone one as prodigious as Blair’s.

In spite of all of this, it took me an age to get around to watching 2010’s Alice in Wonderland. In part, this is because of my complex relationship with the films of Tim Burton. Having loved every second of the Edward Scissorhands era, I became increasingly disillusioned with his more recent work, culminating in a substantial dislike of Big Fish  – the point, for me, at which his work stopped being beautiful creative driven by the story but self-consciously quirky stories retrofitted into a glorious visual. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by his Alice – from the liberties it gleefully took with the source material to the canny casting of the other-worldly Mia Wasikowska. And when I heard that Alice Through the Looking Glass was going to be handed over to another director, I was heartened – if The Nightmare Before Christmas teaches us anything it’s that sometimes Burton can be credited with finer work as producer, rather than director.

And then… then I was invited to watch it as part of an Edible Cinema screening. Hell yes, my friends.

I’ve been dying to try Edible Cinema for ages – food AND films? What’s not to love? – and I cannot imagine a better pairing for this pleasingly inventive idea than an Alice film. If you’re unfamiliar with the setup, you get given a box full of numbered ‘serves’ and then are prompted unobtrusively during the film to eat or drink them at relevant points. Each serve is designed to perfectly accompany the scene it’s consumed with – like ice-cold mouthfuls of crunchy sherbet as the characters tramp through the snow… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Alice Through the Looking Glass again parks the source material at the door, simply taking the characters of Lewis Carroll’s world and playing merry hell with them. And really, maybe it’s the preferable route to take sometimes, particularly with such widely adapted and massively influential texts; without worrying about the impact of some perceived canon or other, you can simply enjoy the action for what it is. Set some years after Alice’s return from ‘Underland’, she’s now a fearless sea captain – steering her late father’s ship to safety and leaving pirates stranded in the shallows. This Alice is a fully paid up feminist, and it’s a delight to see. On her return to land, her shady wannabe-ex attempts to pop her back into the drawer he thinks she belongs in – instead Alice follows an old friend through a looking glass and ends up back in the familiar topsy-turvy world, only to be plunged immediately into a race against Time (literally, in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen) to save her friend the Hatter from a swift decline prompted by nostalgic melancholy.

If I’m honest, the plot doesn’t always make that much sense, but the rollicking, frantic pace is such that it doesn’t much matter. The moral – that you can’t change the past, but you can learn from it – is ladled on a tad thickly but it helps that it’s a pretty solid moral. Wasikowska’s straight guy turn is thoughtful, and there’s a cameo for all her old pals, from Absolem (the late, great Alan Rickman’s final work, and heartbreaking for it) to the White Queen (Anne Hathaway still keeping up the well-meant but misguided mannerisms that made the character rather irritating the first time around). Andrew Scott pops up pleasingly as a sort of Bedlam Moriarty, eyes gleaming and syringe held high. And of course Helena Bonham Carter is back on scene-stealing duty as Iracebeth, the Red Queen, but it’s Baron Cohen who walks away with the film. His sublime portrayal of what director James Bobin – he, appropriately enough, of The Muppets – called the ‘confident idiot’ is beautifully balanced: he flips on and off the manic gleam in his eye to be at one moment the frustrating villain of the piece and at the next a surprisingly moving figure.


Accompanying the rapid twists and turns of the plot were some brilliantly creative moments from Edible Cinema. Be warned – you will be sugar high and a little tipsy by the time you emerge from any EC screening (and there are allergen-friendly menus available if you get in touch in time). I parked my sugar-quitting at the door to try a gooey, marshmallow fluff-based confection as Alice landed in a heap of flowers, a crystalline sugar butterfly when she met the transformed former caterpillar (accompanied by a shot of gin so strong I coughed like a furtive  smoker behind the bikesheds) and a rich bite of ginger and thyme spice cake as matters came to their Time-ly resolution at the end. My absolute favourite – both for flavour and the matching sensation it evoked – was the aforementioned crunchy sugar snow (and more gin). I missed one number cue which meant that two treats got shovelled in rather quickly one after another but it didn’t really affect the overall charm of the experience. Were I to give any feedback it would be that more savouries would really help cut through the intense sweetness of the menu, as some very welcome sharp and spicy popcorn did, but I imagine it’s very different with other films. And there’s no doubt that I would definitely try it again.

Glorious setting aside, I will admit that – with its madcap pace, convoluted plot and sudden resolution – Alice Through the Looking Glass is not a masterpiece, but it is a perfectly watchable romp with a universally appealing moral and a satisfyingly intentional take on creating a feminist heroine. Older children will enjoy the bonkers humour and rousing pitch, while adults can be quietly charmed by the sumptuous visuals and quality cast. Of course I didn’t take my 5yo to this particular screening (hic!); while I think she would have been fine with the nature of the content, she would likely have struggled with following the plot so in general I’d recommend it for 7+. If you don’t manage to catch it in cinemas, I definitely recommend getting creative with snacks for the home release – I can confirm it adds a whole new dimension.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is on UK general release.

Disclosure: The screening and Edible Cinema experience were courtesy of the Disney UK team. All opinions my own.



Film review: Suffragette, BFI London Film Festival Opening Gala

A view from the red carpet.

A view from the red carpet at the BFI London Film Festival 2015.

Deeds not words…

As famous slogans go, it’s a pretty spectacular one to base your film on. In Suffragette, Abi Morgan has put the bite in soundbite, stitching together a stomach-clenching script in which each scene has the punch of a powerful strapline and each stage is blisteringly, self-consciously, deliberately polemic.

I felt Suffragette rather than watching it. The lense of a working class woman allows director Sarah Gavron – who has been working on bringing this story to the big screen for a decade – to show a real and specific human cost to activism. Opening in the laundry in which Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) has spent her whole life, the film takes us on a journey of loss, each one worse than the last, unflinchingly spelling out the price of freedom, finally culminating in a pointed list of what is still to be won.

Carey Mulligan quickly drifts in to say her thanks before heading off home to her infant child.

Carey Mulligan quickly drifts in to say her thanks before heading off home to her infant child.

It’s visceral, and it’s raw. In many ways, it’s a film for people who are still wavering on the edge of feminism; for those who have been involved in the movement in any depth there are no surprises – from the brief appearance of Emmeline Pankhurst (a predictably wonderful Meryl Streep cameo) making a rabble-rousing speech to the horrifically inevitable force feeding scene. For those who are already engaged the power of the film lies both in the film’s very existence and in the sympathetic, complex and interesting performances, in which both Mulligan and Anne-Marie Duff shine, ably supported in an unusually but very effectively understated performance from Helena Bonham Carter as Edith Ellyn (an amalgam of various real-life figures).

Cast and crew including Sarah Gavron, Abi Morgan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw and the queenly Meryl Streep.

Cast and crew including Sarah Gavron, Abi Morgan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw and the queenly Meryl Streep.

It’s worth noting that the male cast are not abandoned to be patriarchal stereotypes but each of the key characters – dogged policeman Steed (Brendan Gleeson) and Maud’s conflicted husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) – represent the way in which apparently ‘good’ men can support oppression through a misguided cyncism, fear or shame. They are not one-dimensional villains (though there is at least one appalling figure in the form of abusive laundry manager Mr Taylor), but conflicted and authentic individuals – a creative choice that in turn prevents the women that are the clear and present beating heart of this film from being sidelined into just mouthpieces for slogans.

Heather Stewart - in a weirdly wonderful Suffrage-inspired dress - delivers some home truths about representation in the industry.

Heather Stewart – in a weirdly wonderful Suffrage-inspired dress – delivers some home truths about representation in the industry.

I’d been so excited to see this for so long that I didn’t realise fully how strong the impact would be. Seeing it in the context of the Opening Gala of the 59th BFI London Film Festival – keeping that American Express card forever – meant emotions were running high even before the opening credits. A biting speech about the relative lack of representation for women in film from BFI Creative Director Heather Stewart set the tone – around 20% of the films showing over the next 10 days are directed by women, which also represents the balance submitted for consideration. The thing is, women already know that women love films, watch films, spend money on films and want to make films. The message to the industry has got to be that films like this succeed, make money and have an audience way beyond some perceived niche. Better yet, given what a powerful and stunningly moving film this is, we don’t have to fake it to make it. We can throw our weight behind filmmaking like this with pride.

Suffragette is on general release from Monday 15th October.

Suffragette is on general release from Monday 15th October.

So let’s do it.


No disclosure: I attended in my own capacity as a BFI Member. And because I’m an enormous nerd, I wore green and white with purple eyeshadow. Thoughts on Trumbo and High-Rise now added.

See the program and get tickets for further #LFF events here.

Film review: Cinderella and Frozen Fever

Ramona meets a prince and checks out a glass slipperIt feels faintly confessional to declare I bloody love Kenneth Branagh. I do. I think he’s great. I love his acting. I love his direction. I love that he brought us Thor (and, via the marvellous Wallander, Tom Hiddleston). I love that he was married to Emma Thompson. And even though I really, really wanted Toby Stephens to be cast as Gilderoy Lockhart, I love that he’s a part of the Harry Potter film universe. So I didn’t need a whole lot of convincing to watch his take on Cinderella.

And to top it all, I got to be among the very first people in the UK to get to see Frozen Fever, which has nothing to do with Kenneth Branagh, but is basically me bragging. Sorry. Ish. More on this later (or you can just scroll to the bottom).

Branagh’s Cinderella is a live action retelling of the fairytale; it doesn’t have a particular  alternative spin, a la Maleficent, and – wisely, in my opinion – it doesn’t really seek to do much more than reinvigorate a well-loved tale. Disney’s animated classic, still looking gorgeous at 65, is one of the gentlest of the whole stable, with relatively little peril and a liberal sprinkling of glitter and stardust – in fact, it’s said Walt’s favourite bit of animation was the dress transformation. Branagh restrainedly doesn’t attempt to layer too much onto that and goes instead for a very traditional family movie, marrying a sweet, intimate script peppered with British quirk to the visual sumptuousness of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Ramona gets her nails painted a glittery blueIn fact, so lavish is the imagery – particularly the mindblowingly gorgeous costume design – that only an excellent cast could avoid being swallowed up by it. While Lily James is a bit too breathless for my preference – kindness doesn’t have to mean a lack of gumption – Richard Madden is appropriately charming and Cate Blanchett, in the accurate words of my husband “becomes more beautiful and more intimidatingly talented with every role”. Her Lady Tremaine is wonderfully nuanced and even a little sympathetic, swinging smoothly from uncontrolled bursts of rage to icily arresting viciousness. In this she’s ably assisted by the secondary villain, a megalomaniac aristocrat brought to scheming life by Stellan Skarsgard (yep, love him too) and Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera in gloriously grotesque form as Anastasia and Drizella – in fact, I could have done with even more of the latter pairing.

Ramona, the Prince and me.The show is, however, stolen by the special guest star; Helena Bonham Carter opts for feather-light British eccentricity with a touch of sly humour as the Fairy Godmother; her soft voice shepherds us through the heavily narrated action and her eventual appearance involves plenty of daft physical comedy, making gleeful use of elements like her bizarre choice of vehicular vegetable. She lifts the pace of what is a surprisingly long movie and keeps it from sagging at the centre, providing the off-beat heart of the film. Injecting a little more drama into the magic also sets up a lively and welcome stroke-of-midnight set piece, which, with its ‘princess’ trapped in a shrinking pumpkin, has more than a whiff of Alice about it.

From the largely home-grown cast to the indulgent little asides (a Rob Brydon cameo that wasn’t for me, but that seemed to land well with the rest of the audience), this felt like a very British effort, and it’s that layer of deliberate quirk that brings it to life and makes it a highly watchable, sweet and very, very pretty family film.

The four-year-old’s verdict: It was good. I think it’s better than the cartoon. Cinderella was nice. It was a bit long though and I got tired. There were some funny bits [she laughed during the painter scene, and at the animal transformations].

Family note: Aside from two – very gentle – depictions of death and, of course, Lady Tremaine’s acerbic treatment of Cinders, there’s little to worry about here for even the most sensitive child. Definitely a full family friendly film (I like alliteration).

Cinderella is on general release in the UK from March 27th.


And now, Frozen Fever. Well, it certainly has its moments! Without wishing to give too much away, the action unfolds on Anna’s birthday where Elsa’s attempts to give her a celebration to remember go a little awry (think Tangled Every After with more snow). There’s a new song to enjoy, and plenty of Olaf gags, plus cameos from practically every character you’d want to see. Ramona watched avidly and chuckled out loud a few times, as did I. And it was nice to hear Jonathan Groff sing a little about something other than reindeer…

Disclosure: The kind folks at Disney UK provided screening tickets including the funtimes shown above; thoughts about the film, however, are entirely mine.