By Nadia Dalimonte
Keira Chansa in Come Away (2020)
From the director of Brave, two of the most beloved fairytale characters in literature share the screen as brother and sister in Brenda Chapman’s adventure, Come Away. Before Alice goes to Wonderland and Peter becomes Pan, the siblings let their imaginations run wild in the English countryside, where they live with their older brother David (Reece Yates). The children are encouraged by their parents Jack and Rose (David Oyelowo and Angelina Jolie) to make-believe. But after a sudden family tragedy, grief takes over the characters and they each find a different avenue to cope. The film has a star-studded cast, creative production design, and an intriguing gem of a story idea commenting on the connection between grief and imagination. Marissa Kate Goodhill’s screenplay gives Alice (Keira Chansa) and Peter (Jordan A. Nash) in particular a strong arc of finding wondrous escapism in response to moments of loss. However the overall story has an odd, confusing, and inconsistent journey to the screen.
Come Away feels like multiple films in one, with no clear vision as to which path the narrative should follow. There are plenty of ideas thrown in, but the elements of emotional drama and magical fantasy rarely land on the same page in an organic way. As a result, multiple scenes that are set up as big heartfelt moments fall flat. The attempted blend of realism and dream-like sequences feel mostly out of place, especially when referencing bits from the source material. Multiple characters from the original fairytales are reimagined in strange and stilted ways. Characters such as The Lost Boys are included without real significance to the progression of Peter’s character, other than to give the audience a clear connection to Neverland. At one point they randomly stumble out from a tree to declare that Peter become their leader. While the reimagining of a familiar story gives context to certain scenes, the screenplay has an over reliance on the notability of literary characters to fill in the blanks during the film.
The Red Queen from the Wonderland universe also makes a few appearances from the perspective of young Alice’s imagination. Alice sees versions of the Queen in her mother Rose (Jolie) and aunt Eleanor (Anna Chancellor), both of whom want the polar opposite for Alice. While Rose encourages her daughter to play and be herself, Eleanor wants to make a proper lady out of her. High tea, beautiful gowns, and marrying well are on the checklist. As most of the story sees Alice in a vulnerable state, her aunt uses that grief as an opportunity to promise bigger and better things should Alice come live with her. The reimagining of the Red Queen represents two different paths to sanctuary and protection, each one appealing to Alice as she tries to figure out where her heart ultimately lies.
The film touches on a lot of mature themes, another being issues of class. Alice’s father Jack (Oyelowo) doesn’t come from wealth, and Aunt Eleanor sees this as an unsound environment for the children to live in. There is some mystery surrounding the life Jack had before having a family. During a meeting with a man named Charlie (Michael Caine), issues of debt come up and he is confronted by a group of men he owes a great deal of money to. As their threats grow more intense and follow him home, it’s clear that he must come up with the money. Alice and Peter, the latter eager to prove himself a hero, journey to London to sell a treasured heirloom to a pawnshop owner known as C.J. (David Gyasi). C.J. has family ties to Jack, and things soon become complicated. C.J. and the treasure hark back to elements of Pan and Captain Hook, but this subplot doesn’t add much weight to the film other than present a challenge to the protagonists.
As much as the story is about magic and fairytales, it also speaks to siblings wounded by the same hurt, soothed by the same lullabies, and who diverge on different paths. Golden dream dust takes Alice and Peter far, far away from home and from each other. The film is narrated by a grown up version of Alice (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who gives some backstory to how Alice was a visitor in Wonderland while Peter was born to be Pan. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is by far one of the most talented actors working today. She has beautiful range; unfortunately she’s given a tiny amount of screen time in this film. The rest of the cast get the job done. While both Oyelowo and Jolie are solid, they are let down by incoherent writing and don’t get the chance to truly soar.
While the potential of the film is not fully realized, there is a lot to admire about Come Away, notably strong representation throughout the film. It matters that children will see themselves in the roles of Alice and Peter. The child actors, especially Keira Chansa who plays Alice, have some promising talent in bringing a sense of adventure and early maturity to their characters.