If cinema scholars still studied films instead of propounding abstruse critical theories and pontificating about race, class, and gender issues, some enterprising grad student could write a killer thesis about the rise and evolution of the ensemble movie. After examining the genre’s prehistory—John Dos Passos’ novels, Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight, and other all-star ’30s productions—our savant could then analyze the archetypal model, Robert Altman’s 1975 Nashville. Then on to other Altman ensemble pieces (A Wedding, Short Cuts); similar works by Altman protege Alan Rudolph (Choose Me, The Moderns); John Sayles’ first and best feature, Return of the Secaucus Seven; Lawrence Kasdan’s reactionary reworking of Sayles’ film, The Big Chill; and, finally, contemporary productions such as Todd Solondz’s Happiness, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, Jeremy Podeswa’s The Five Senses, and Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland.

Instead of presenting a linear narrative centering on a few protagonists, ensemble films explore a milieu or theme by deploying a sizable gallery of characters. In Wonderland, the environment is contemporary London and the subject is post-Thatcherite working-class malaise. In the movie’s production notes, screenwriter Laurence Coriat, making her feature debut, says of the script, “I didn’t want it to be bitter and cynical, and Michael has really injected a note of optimism into the film.” Compared with some of Winterbottom’s previous efforts—his adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s grimly deterministic Jude the Obscure and his hell-on-earth Welcome to Sarajevo—Wonderland may seem relatively upbeat, but it’s essentially a gloomfest that ends with a perfunctory glimmer of hopefulness.

Winterbottom and Coriat confine their fragmented, panoramic slice of life to events that transpire over a long weekend climaxing with Guy Fawkes Day, the Nov. 5 celebration of the Roman Catholic conspirator’s futile 1605 attempt to kill King James I and blow up Parliament to avenge the persecution of his co-religionists. Failure similarly permeates the lives of the movie’s characters, a wretched lot who are gradually revealed to be members of a single dysfunctional family.

Mum (Kika Markham) and Dad (Jack Shepherd) sleepwalk through their moribund marriage, trapped in a cramped council house. Mum has a spitball prepared for everyone in sight, her sour temperament exacerbated by the incessant barking of the dog next door. Dour-faced Dad’s sole moment of relief comes when he’s locked out of the house and drops in on a neighbor, who cajoles him into dancing with her.

Unhappiness appears to be the parents’ genetic legacy to their three daughters. Lovelorn Nadia (Gina McKee of Croupier, still the best movie in town) waits tables in a Soho greasy spoon and uses her cell phone to communicate with a lonely-hearts service. Sporting a Minnie Mouse hairdo that would give any man pause, she rejects a series of punters, then falls for Tim (Stuart Townsend), a handsome Irish photographer who beds and then promptly discards her.

Expectant mother Molly (Molly Parker from The Five Senses) lives with Eddie (John Simm), a kitchen-appliance salesman. Bored with his thankless job and intimidated by the responsibilities of impending parenthood, Eddie wants to bail out before it’s too late. Debbie (Shirley Henderson), a good-time-girl hairdresser separated from her doltish, womanizing husband, Dan (Ian Hart), distractedly raises their soulful son, Jack (Peter Marfleet). There’s also a brother, Darren (Enzo Cilenti), who has evaded the familial curse of angst by severing ties with the rest of the brood. We’re offered brief glimpses of him happily snogging with his girlfriend on a train and shagging her in a hotel room.

The cast’s naturalistic performances are so uniformly accomplished that it’s pointless to single out individual actors for praise. Winterbottom has adopted a visual style to complement the semi-improvised contributions of his players. Combining a 16-mm wide-screen format with handheld camera, he shoots guerrilla-style in real locations using available light. The resulting grainy, sometimes headachey images convey a palpable sense of real life caught on the fly. Occasional passages of sped-up or slowed-down motion express characters’ inner states and recall the formal adventurousness of the French New Wave auteurs.

What makes Wonderland less than satisfying, however, is Winterbottom’s failure to make his characters’ alienation and frustration seem like more than a filmmaker’s nihilistic posturing. I counted only one joke in the film’s 108-minute running time, an implausibly minuscule note of humor to represent the English working class’s verbal vivacity. The first hour, in particular, is a fairly punishing experience, an accretion of pent-up misery destined to find release in violence. And it does, in an assortment of angry flare-ups, a mugging, and a killing, topped off by an agonizingly protracted childbirth sequence that makes you want to call your mother and apologize for your existence.

At times, the filmmaker overleaps credibility in order to sustain his pessimistic tone. A noisy dog can be silenced by taking less drastic measures than the one Mum chooses. The mugging sequence is shot to trick the viewer into thinking that the victim has been raped or murdered when, in fact, he emerges unscathed but minus his Walkman. Winterbottom—an exceedingly apt name for a director with such a chilly disposition—can’t resist the occasional cultural wink-wink-nudge-nudge to the viewer. The unlikely video that Eddie brings home to his pregnant partner is Eraserhead, the ultimate horror-of-reproduction movie. And the couple’s oft-repeated plan to name their pending baby Alice strikes with sledgehammer finesse.

Winterbottom’s worst calculation comes after the gut-wrenching birth scene. Rather than announcing a third generation of despair, tiny Alice’s arrival triggers a chain of improbable redemptions, reconciliations, and recommitments. Wonderland would be more admirable, and probably no less enjoyable, if the filmmaker had the courage to remain true to his unsparing vision. It’s patronizing to be offered an Oprah-esque crumb of affirmation as a reward for wading through Winterbottom’s vale of tears. CP