Viewers looking to star Hugh Grant and director Mike Newell for a buoyant follow-up to their international smash “Four Weddings and a Funeral” will come away shaking their heads at “An Awfully Big Adventure.” A dour, anti-sentimental coming-of-age story set amid a small-time theatrical company in postwar Liverpool, this rather disagreeable look at the irresponsible and corrupting behavior of adults toward youthful proteges is both somewhat confusing and unpalatable, despite the strong talent involved. B.O. prospects for this Fine Line release look soft, at least in the U.S.
Made with consummate technical skill that deftly conjures up the constrained economic, social and cultural environment in the U.K. shortly after World War II , the film draws its title from a line in the play “Peter Pan,” which is produced by the troupe here and whose theme of perpetual youth stands in ironic contrast to the grim and foreshortened childhoods of the youngsters seduced by the tawdry allure of the theater world and its leading lights.
After a black-and-white prologue showing wartime bombing and the abandonment of a baby, pic proper begins in 1947, when stage-struck 16-year-old Stella (Georgina Cates) wins a position as assistant stage manager for the theater company run by Meredith Potter (Grant). Ragtag group will put on three plays in six weeks’ time, and Stella will even get to perform a small role in one of them.
More at issue than the productions themselves, which are only briefly glimpsed, are the warped and largely destructive interpersonal relationships and power plays that infect the daily work of the troupe. Effete, supercilious, willful and callous, Potter is a dandy and would-be aristocrat whose elegant manner causes the impressionable Stella to become instantly infatuated with him, to the point of adopting his Catholicism and his smoking habit, and altering private communications between her new boss and one of his former loves, to destructive effect. In the meantime, Potter continues to degrade and abuse his loyal stage manager, Bunny (Peter Firth).
At home, Stella lives with her Uncle Vernon and Aunt Lily (Alun Armstrong and Rita Tushingham), and at moments of stress the teenager has private imaginary phone conversations with her long-departed mother.
After nearly an hour of this, plus sketchy scenes with other characters whose importance to the narrative is highly tangential, the much-anticipated arrival of name actor P.L. O’Hara (Alan Rickman) on his motorcycle shakes up the company and the film. O’Hara plays Captain Hook in “Peter Pan” with great flourish, and during off-hours makes a conquest of young Stella. Handling of this affair represents the picture’s most provocative element; after her initial fear, the dispassionate Stella begins to “get the hang” of sex but withholds all emotion, confessing to O’Hara that “I love another.”
Climactic revelations regarding Potter’s cruel treatment of a new male assistant and Stella’s parentage provide the film with its most potent scenes, but also make this “Adventure” a relatively bitter pill to swallow. Charles Wood’s adaptation of Beryl Bainbridge’s novel breaks the tale up into such short sequences that one often hasn’t a clue who some of the characters are or what they’re talking about. Exceedingly understated storytelling style keeps the film’s ultimate concerns out of sight for longer than most viewers will be willing to wait.
Central view here is a caustic one of adults who are nearly all portrayed as selfish users carelessly taking advantage of kids they can manipulate emotionally. This pointed truth, however, might have been even more effectively and poignantly expressed had the film more enthusiastically portrayed the intoxicating allure that a life in the theater can have for young people. The thrill and excitement are virtually nowhere present, just the degrading and dispiriting.
Grant’s portrayal of a nervous, deceptive, remorseless molester will win him no new fans, and Rickman’s careless, unthinking thespian is no less dubious a character. Cates’ Stella is unusually frosty and calculating even at the outset, and only at the end is it possible to get much of a fix on the complexity of her personality. Most other characterizations are deliberately exaggerated in theatrical style, save for Armstrong, who supplies the sole moments of real humanity as Stella’s uncle.
Period re-creation is strong thanks to Mark Geraghty’s highly detailed production design, Joan Bergin’s costumes, Dick Pope’s somewhat bleached lensing and the work of other hands. Crucial confusing element involves the 1941 prologue and its subsequent repetition; Stella at age 10 is seen obsessively watching the bombing, but presentation makes unclear the who and when of a little baby also glimpsed at this point, causing one to guess at, but not be entirely sure of, the full import of the script’s final disclosures.