New Line // 1991 // 113 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // May 9th, 2005
A revealing comedy about what really goes on when the lights go down.
An Awfully Big Adventure is disappointing, but not because it's a bad movie. In fact, it's a good movie that's been the victim of extremely bad marketing. It's not a typical Hugh Grant comedy, and those heading into it expecting that will be totally disturbed and upset. This is nothing like Four Weddings and a Funeral, regardless of what is written on the cover. Now that we've cleared that up, we can get on with the review.
An innocent, and perhaps slightly unhinged, 16-year-old named Stella (Georgina Cates, A Soldier's Sweetheart) gets involved with a theater troupe in post-war Liverpool. She immediately (and inexplicably) falls in love with Meredith Potter (Hugh Grant, About a Boy), the viciously tactless director of the troupe. She fights off sexual advances from the male stagehands and fails completely to attract the attentions of Potter, who everyone else realizes is gay. When a womanizing star actor named P.L. O'Hara (Alan Rickman, Something the Lord Made) arrives to play the role of Hook in Peter Pan, Stella finds herself drawn in even though she doesn't love him.
This sounds like the plot of a romantic comedy, but don't be mistaken. From the ground up, An Awfully Big Adventure is designed to be uncomfortable and unpleasant. There is humor, but it's so dark that it is almost embarrassing to watch. Meredith is particularly ruthless and cruel, and what would normally pass as sarcastic humor is taken to its logical extremes. Stella is taken advantage of by every character she encounters, so her romantic entanglements are well outside of the normal bounds of romantic comedies. In comedies, sex is either idealized or comedic, but here it's simply another way to exercise power and gain a little personal pleasure. To be fair, there are a couple of funny sequences. The speech Meredith gives at the beginning of the season is priceless (before we realize he will act like this through the entire film), and a couple of exchanges between Stella and P.L. touched on something humanly funny.
An Awfully Big Adventure isn't a comedy, so I won't judge it as one. It is a drama interested in the awkwardness of growing up, the way people mistreat one another, and romantic situations that arise in tight knit communities. Stella isn't entirely innocent when we first meet her, and not as naïve as the other characters assume she is. She realizes that she's being taken advantage of, and speaks up when she feels that the advances of the men around her are going too far. Stella is willing to endure a certain amount of abuse to get the recognition she wants. It's uncomfortable to watch a 16-year-old character make those choices, but in some ways she holds as much power as anyone else in the theater company. In the end, she gets in way over her head, not realizing the full emotional and relational extent of the experiences she consents to.
The theater is an unpleasant place full of bitter and aging actors who are well past their prime. They know each other well, dislike each other, and yet still come back year after year, angry about situations that are long in the past. Each of these characters has secrets, the kind of secrets that everyone in the troupe knows about. It's strange how people will protect their weaknesses even when everyone around them sees what's going on. An Awfully Big Adventure has a number of real secrets as well, which come out by the end of the film. These are sneakier, and have a bigger impact on the characters.
The performances are reasonable. Lead performer Georgina Cates gives the weakest effort; she does a better job of showing wide-eyed fascination at entering a new world than cohesively expressing her character's nutty side. Hugh Grant is at his sleazy, sardonic best, although he doesn't get much screen time. Alan Rickman is excellent, taking over the film when he shows up partway through. An Awfully Big Adventure doesn't showcase these actors at the peak of their talents, but they handle their parts with sincerity and passion.
We are never allowed to forget that the film takes place shortly after World War II. An Awfully Big Adventure opens with Stella in the war as a child. Characters define themselves by what they did during the war, and most of them have fears and issues that come from their wartime experiences. This film reminds us that the war impacted everyone that lived through it.
Unfortunately, half the film passes before these strengths become clear. At first, An Awfully Big Adventure doesn't know what it wants to be as it flips between serious and funny scenes. Some elements of the film are too subtle, so it takes a while to figure out what's really going on. It takes quite a bit of time to realize that it's not going to suddenly turn into a romantic comedy, which doesn't give a whole lot of warning before wading into the heavier issues. A tighter script and a more cohesive tone would have solved the problem. At times I had no idea what Stella was talking about, and couldn't tell whether the other characters had an idea, either.
The transfer does a fine job of showcasing the narrow palette, even the abundance of vivid reds. The print has aged, but the colors remain vivid. There's a minimum of grain and no noticeable print flaws. The sound offers generally clear dialogue and well-mixed music. The surrounds don't kick in much on either the Dolby 5.1 or DTS track, but it's even less an action movie than a comedy, so the lack of surround action is not a problem. The accents are strong, so I struggled with the different words used as much as I did understanding what they were saying.
There aren't any extras on the disc, which is not much of a surprise for an older film that got a cold reception when it first came out.
An Awfully Big Adventure isn't what I expected from the cover. The film has interesting ideas and shocking surprises, but viewers are going to be disappointed as long as New Line markets it as a companion piece to Four Weddings and a Funeral. Fans of the stars or those fascinated by semi-professional British stage theater (all three of you) will want to check it out, but I think rental is in order. An Awfully Big Adventure is unpleasant and dark, it never finds a consistent angle, and the script is flawed. I doubt it would get many follow-up viewings in anyone's collection.
I will release An Awfully Big Adventure because it managed to surprise me and stay with me after it was over, but New Line gets a big slap upside the head for its awful marketing job.
Review content copyright © 2005 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Rated R