Imagine a mash-up of J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll, with a dash of Charles Dickens for Victorian miserablism and an all-star cast including Angelina Jolie, David Oyelowo, and Michael Caine, and you get the sense of Come Away, a fitfully engaging reworking of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.
Here, screenwriter Marissa Kate Goodhill imagines that Peter and Alice are siblings, growing up in the idyllic country home of Rose and Jack Littleton (Jolie and Oyelowo), loving parents who rear Peter, Alice, and their older brother, David, to be creative free spirits.
The Littleton household is one of near-constant wonderment, as Alice (Keira Chansa) holds tea parties for her beloved stuffed rabbit, her hand mirror usually at the ready, and as Peter and David (Jordan A. Nash, Reece Yates) stage imaginary raids on an abandoned boat they discover in a nearby river.
Rabbits, tea parties, and fanciful pirate ships are just a few of the myriad callbacks that populate Come Away, especially after a family tragedy sends Alice and Peter further into their dream worlds. Here, Goodhill posits that those journeys aren’t born of childlike innocence as much as grief and abandonment. The uses of enchantment, by her lights, have much more to do with real-world pain than escapist adventure.
It’s a smart conceit, and in the hands of director Brenda Chapman (Brave), it’s executed with discerning taste and a rich visual palette. Echoing such recent films as The Personal History of David Copperfield and Enola Holmes, Come Away takes place in a bracingly pluralistic 19th-century England, giving the story added verve and resonance.
If the thematic material in Come Away can be difficult and draggy at times — the film addresses mortality, addiction, and family dysfunction, among other anxieties — Chapman enlivens it with the handsome colors and textures of the era, from the floral William Morris patterns on the Littleton walls to the extravagant velvets and laces worn by Rose and her prim sister Eleanor (Anna Chancellor, at her most gloriously imperious).
There are moments when the fanfic speculations of Come Away feel too forced and downright cockamamie. The plot, probably inevitable, becomes schematic, and the near-constant state of magical thinking too sticky-sweet for words.
But the enterprise is ennobled by Chapman’s sense of style and a consistently strong set of performances, especially from Jolie and Oyelowo, the latter of whom is one of the film’s producers.
Come Away may not hold a candle to the stories it references, but it shines with an illuminating and aspirational light all its own.
Come Away *** (Out of four)
Directed by: Brenda Chapman, with Angelina Jolie, David Oyelowo, Michael Caine, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
Playing at: Area theaters and available at home on-demand.
Run time: 2 hours, 14 minutes
Parent’s guide: Rated PG, for strong mature thematic elements, some violence, fantasy action, and unsettling images.