I do often enjoy a backstory or side-story to a well-known standard tale. So the premise of Come Away (2020) was appealing, given that it’s about Alice and Peter “setting the stage for their iconic journeys into Wonderland and Neverland.” Even better, it features David Oyelowo and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in historical costume, although it turns out that they’re just some of the adults, and this movie focuses on the kids.
But it’s not really a kid’s movie, the PG rating is well earned due to dark themes throughout. Of course, the best fairy tales have dark sides, and this movie explores them along with addressing the blatant classism of the Victorian era and coded racism of then and now. Oyelowo discussed the film’s look at class / race in an interview with SyFy Wire:
“One of the wonderful things about the script was how it looked at class in British society. Living in the U.K. for well over 20 years of my life, I have found that in many ways, class has been an excuse for racism. You know, the idea that it has less to do with the color of your skin and more to do with the hierarchical way that society is set up. What is often in denial is that by virtue of the color of your skin, you are instantaneously of a lower class. But like I say, class is often used as the excuse, when it’s about race: ‘Forgive us for being so British, having our class system.'”
This is a subtle theme in the film, but important. Apparently before the movie’s release, internet trolls review bombed Come Away on IMDB.com with nasty comments because, oh noes, how dare Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland be Black? Way to prove racism is alive and kicking, internet.
The frame of the movie is of an adult Alice (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) telling a bedtime story to her three children. With phrases of W. B. Yeats’ “The Stolen Child,” she introduces 8-year-old Alice and her two older brothers, Peter and David. Their mother (Angelina Jolie) and father (David Oyelowo) are kind and indulgent, but the family seems to be struggling. Aunt Eleanor (Anna Chancellor) snootily offers financial assistance, further disturbing the peace. The children have an active and wild imagination that they retreat into, which comes alive on screen and contrasts with the realities that keep threatening to break up their cozy family.
Some of the plot is predictable, some is curiously not, perhaps due to leaps into metaphor. This isn’t Hook (1991) or Finding Neverland (2004), neither a full excursion into fantasy nor a realistic look at the history behind the books. The story is like a poetic parable for a complicated, sometimes tragic, childhood, as imagined by an adult woman looking back. I found it to be a lyrical 90 minutes that left me wanting more, somewhat unsatisfying but not unpleasant.
No year is stated but the art direction and costumes suggest later half of the 19th century. Only Aunt Eleanor is fashionably dressed in bustle gown, so I’d guess the period is 1870s-80s. The framing story shows adult Alice in an evening gown from about the turn of the 20th century, which seems reasonable that 20-30 years have passed. Costume designer Louise Stjernsward didn’t seem to do press for this film, and I don’t think she’s done other historical productions (but plenty of contemporary films). There aren’t a lot of costume changes in Come Away, but some details are worth noting to me.
One costume thing I particularly noted was a subtle theme around hats. Most of the movie takes place at the family’s rather rustic home, so they aren’t wearing hats. But Aunt Eleanor does when she visits, and in the few scenes in London, we meet the Mad Hatter, who is a key character. And finally, the mother Rose spends a chunk of the film making a felt blocked hat from scratch!
Here’s the whole process of Rose making a felt hat. She carries on with it through several scenes, while others are talking to her. It’s a nicely accurate portrayal of the process, as it could have been done at home in the 19th century. As a dabbler in the millinery arts, I’m super impressed! There’s no credits for milliner or even historian, but IMDB lists Vicki Banks as “instructor: felting” so props to her if she’s the one who advised the film on the tools and process and showed Angelina Jolie how to make it look right.
Will you be watching Come Away?