The first time [that one sees O Dreamland], it is like a blow in the face; the second, one approaches it with a kind of eager dread. For ten minutes it assaults eye and ear with a rough-edged but sharp-centred impression of this South Coast amusement park, in which the ugliness and degradation of most of the distractions offered are symbolised by the mocking mechanical laughter of a dummy sailor. There is a working model of the execution of the "atom spies", the Rosenbergs, which reconstructs the ritual for sixpence at the door…. [Whether] the rendezvous is with violent death or a smutty peepshow, with a fire-eater or a gambling machine, a listless caged animal or an old mug of tea, reactions appear the same. People stare…. Signs of real vitality are produced by greed…. (pp. 175-76)
Everything is ugly. A papier-maché facade with a swollen, grimacing gargoyle, an immense "artistic" statue representing a coyly nude pseudo-classical figure, a "Swiss beer garden" in which local music and yodelling emanate from twitching, squeaking puppets, the steaming, slippery, greasy trays of food labelled SAUSAGES and ONIONS in the Happy Family Restaurant; feet shuffle clumsily across ground fouled with all kinds of litter, buttocks encased in grey, shapeless material spread and crease over stools at counters; and all the time the sleek charabancs pour in. It is almost too much. The nightmare is redeemed by the point of view, which, for all the unsparing candid camerawork and the harsh, inelegant photography, is emphatically humane. Pity, sadness, even poetry is infused into this drearily tawdry, aimlessly hungry world. It is infused by imaginative comment … but even more by the director's absolute fidelity to his subject….
All these people, one realises, are seeking something they will probably never find. The Rosenbergs die again and they bleakly, willingly stare—but there is nothing perverse about it, only a kind of uncertain passivity, an oppressive, sometimes intolerable sense of loss and deprivation. The pleasures are sad not because they are ugly but because there is nothing else. Where else should they go? At the end, the camera moves swiftly, vertiginously up to a panoramic view of Dreamland twinkling and blaring in the night—and it is like a plea for release. (p. 176)
Gavin Lambert, "Free Cinema," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1956 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 25, No. 4, Spring, 1956, pp. 173-77.∗