Friday July 21, 1995
Movies about a life in the theater, no matter how hollowly that life is portrayed, almost always end up as valentines. And, for people who love backstage backbiting and Master Thespian antics, the genre is irresistible.
"An Awfully Big Adventure," based on the Beryl Bainbridge novel, has its share of life-in-the-theater shenanigans, and some of them are flavorful. Set in 1947 in Liverpool, it's about stage-struck 16-year-old Stella (Georgina Cates), who becomes an assistant stage manager for a theater company run by the imperially effete Meredith Potter (Hugh Grant). The troupe is scheduled to put on three plays in six weeks, including "Peter Pan," and the movie itself is a kind of "Peter Pan" in reverse. Without being terribly worldly, Stella enters into a world that wises her up fast. She's ripe for the learning, which includes sexual learning.
Director Mike Newell and screenwriter Charles Wood give Stella's sentimental education a decidedly unsentimental cast. Though the film captures a little of the knockabout frivolity of low-grade theater life, it plays up the sordidness. "An Awfully Big Adventure" is a valentine etched in acid.
Newell, who last directed the overrated high-brow slapstick "Four Weddings and a Funeral," goes in for a more somber mood here. Too somber, actually. What he shows us is so dank that we can't see how a girl's genuine love of the theater could force itself through all this gloom. Stella is a bit of a plaything with the troupe; and she's a bit of a plaything with the filmmakers, too.
Cates is believable in the role and, at times, as in her scenes with the troupe's Captain Hook (Alan Rickman), she's more than that. But Stella's yearning for Potter is too bedewed for someone so cagey.
As Grant plays him, Potter, who is vicious with his boyfriends in the troupe, carries on like a cross between Alastair Sim and Dame Edna. Grant tries to turn his patented flibbertigibbet charm into something acrid. He overdoes both the charm and the acridness.
The best reason to see the film is for Rickman's withering portrait of a moody rotter. He's such a stunning actor that, even though he turns up in the film more than halfway through, he immediately makes it his. He gives the film--or at least his role--a tragic dimension. And, in so doing, he justifies a life in the theater.
An Awfully Big Adventure, 1995. R, for sexuality and some language. A Fine Line Features presentation. Director Mike Newell. Producer Hilary Heath. Executive producer John Kelleher. Screenplay by Charles Wood. Cinematographer Dick Pope. Editor Jon Gregory. Costumes Joan Bergin. Music Richard Hartley. Production design Mark Geraghty. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. Alan Rickman as P. J. O'Hara. Hugh Grant as Meredith Potter. Georgina Cates as Stella Bradshaw. Peter Firth as Bunny.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times