Anita Butler re-visits the Robin Williams film What Dreams May Come
I can't believe it's been 16 years since I first saw What Dreams May Come on its release in 1998. I remember it vividly, mainly because it had me sobbing uncontrollably in the cinema. My poor husband (then my boyfriend) did his best to console me full in view of people walking past us on the way out as I hid further down behind the seats in embarrassment. Never before or since have I had such an extreme response to a film.
As a result it has haunted me ever since, its striking imagery often popping into my head over the years. One of the most visually arresting films I have ever seen, What Dreams May Come blends natural scenery with CGI to conjure exquisite vistas, idealised landscapes and surreal elements. Suddenly, for example, the real world will merge with a painting, which characters inhabit as they create their own 'heavens' with their imaginations, sliding and squelching in acrylics, oils and charcoal, living without fear beyond death where normal rules do not apply. Images that stayed with me include lush Blue Jacaranda trees, flying mermaids and a Dante-esque vision of Purgatory involving people buried up to their necks in mud, with Robin Williams' character Christy climbing over their heads to find his wife, Annie.
Having bought a DVD of the film about eight years ago I left it on the shelf unwatched all that time. I could never bring myself to watch it, too afraid of putting myself through the ordeal again. A large part of me resented it for playing fast and loose with my emotions, smashing my defences with a combination of plot, acting, music, imagery and excessive pathos with virtually no light relief. Sixteen years on there was now the additional complication of viewing What Dreams May Come in a new context. After Robin Williams' death, what would it be like to watch this film now, given that in it he plays a character who has died and entered the afterlife? I wasn't sure whether to watch it or not, but I wanted to pay my respects to the man and it was the only film of his I had.
And there is still much to admire in this beautiful piece, which has a strong sense of a creative vision being fully realised. Watching it is bit like seeing a painting coming into being on a canvas, and of the world of the imagination coming into reality. The special effects stand the test of time and are not gratuitous. Their combination with natural scenery lends texture and sensuousness, although Christy's 'heaven' – an exquisite Italianate villa in Alpine scenery by a lake and amid spectacular vegetation – verges on chocolate box tweeness. The Hell and Purgatory scenes, depicting upturned cathedrals and writhing bodies, are dark and claustrophobic and needed for contrast.
Not that that stops this film from being possibly the most cloyingly sentimental one I've ever seen. The plot – a grieving father who himself dies in a traffic collision, causing his wife to commit suicide – is heavy enough in itself and, while pathos has its place, What Dreams May Come is drenched in it. In the midst of it all Robin Williams is a controlled and dignified presence, despite the silly wig he had to wear to look younger in the early scenes (a joke, perhaps, on his part). As it happens, the night after I watched it the BBC showed Good Will Hunting, the film that confirmed Williams as a superlative acting talent. Yet despite his versatility there was still a strong sense of someone showing us who he really was: a warm-hearted man who exuded kindness.
Watching both films in the privacy of my own home I was free to sob to my heart's content. And I did shed quite a few tears, though not as many as before. In its attempt to articulate a sense of something beyond death, What Dreams May Come depicts an unoriginal, traditional and simplistic view of Heaven and Hell, and I've no doubt the storyline could have been handled less emotively yet just as sensitively, and without losing dramatic impact. From now on, I am tempted to view it as a series of beautiful slow-moving paintings that work well on a wall-mounted flat screen with the volume turned down.
Want to read more like this? Check out Anita's blog at http://lusciouswound.blogspot.co.uk/