Judge Christopher Kulik thinks a better title for this film would have been The Brit Chill.
Love, friendship, and other natural disasters…
In 1980, very few people went to see an extremely low-budget film called Return of the Secausas Seven, which was financed by writer-director John Sayles for a reported $60,000. It was a simple piece about one-time college radicals who have gone their seperate ways, reunite one weekend years later, and discover how much they have changed. Granted, more people may know that same film as The Big Chill, the popular 1983 film which had virtually the same plot, with the exception of big-name stars like William Hurt and Kevin Kline. The latter didn't exactly rip-off Return of the Secausas Seven, so you could actually view them as companion pieces with similar characters and themes. By contrast, the 1992 film Peter's Friends was viewed by many as a British-style version of The Big Chill. While I can see where they are coming from, this film actually has a different scenario: a one-time comedy troupe meet each other again after 10 years and realize they haven't changed all that much. The film was met with rave reviews by critics though because of its British aroma most American audiences didn't seem to be interested. Well, the film has finally arrived on DVD courtesy of MGM and now would be the perfect time to give it a second look.
The film opens up at Cambridge University in 1982: six friends who have been doing a comedy routine for several years are now graduating and preparing to go their seperate ways. One of the members, Peter Morton (Stephen Fry, V For Vendetta) acquires a massive English manor upon his father's passing a decade later. For New Year's Eve weekend, he decides to reunite all the members of the comedy troupe for a reunion. There is Andrew Benson (Kenneth Branagh, Hamlet), who had gone off to Hollywood and married Carol (co-screenwriter Rita Rudner), an egotistical and demanding television star who does a series called "Who's in the Kitchen?" Two members got married: Roger (Hugh Laurie, House) and Mary (Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake) Charleston, who have suffered a recent tragedy when one of their twins dies. The bed-hopping Sarah Johnson (Alphonsia Emmanuel, Saving Grace) seems to have a new lover every month or so, and she brings along her boyfriend-of-the-moment Brian (Tony Slattery, The Crying Game). Finally, there is the nerdy-but-beautiful Maggie Chester (Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility), who has had a crush on Peter for many years and hopes to finally get with him. Arguments, sex, tribulations, sex, confessions, sex, seduction, sex, romance, among other things will happen over the eventful weekend, though the real reason that Peter has invited all of them will not be revealed until new year arrives.
The impressive, peerless British cast is what makes this a treat to watch, though it takes some time to get started. This was producer-director Kenneth Branagh's fourth directorial effort, following Henry V, Dead Again and Swan Song, and it's clear he has a genuine eye for detail and a gift for visual storytelling. Sure, he may be best known for his outstanding Shakespeare screen adaptations, though even with little-known gems like Peter's Friends he is able to capture reality and the ring of truth in a delicate, effortless fashion. It also helps that he has managed to get his hands on a wonderfully witty, well-written screenplay by co-star Rudner and her husband Martin Bergmann. Each of the characters is given ample time to expand their personalities, and the results are no less than delightful, though there are some touching moments along the way. Slattery's Brian is without a doubt the funniest of the group, though Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry both contribute some great moments as well. Another noteworthy addition is Thompson's mother Phyllida Law (Miss Potter), who has a juicy role as Peter's quick-witted housekeeper. As for Branagh himself as Andrew, his performance is not as overly dramatic as some of his Shakespeare roles, though he does allow himself to act drunk in the film's closing moments. Overall, Peter's Friends is a sweet, savory slice-of-life that is definately worth-seeing.
Unfortunately, MGM has opted to give Peter's Friends a completely bare-bones treatment, though it's not unusual for the studio. A commentary track by Branagh would have more than sufficed, though it's altogether possible he declined because of the fact his then-wife Thompson was involved, but who knows. However, it's more plausible that MGM just didn't request for one and, as a result, they are treating this as just another film to get out of the vault and throw on DVD. The film does preserve the original theatrical presentation of 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the results are quite good, though there are some age defects present. The film was shot rather softly, though it certainly fits the warm mood. Subtitles are only provided in English and French. On the audio side, we have DD 2.0 Surround tracks in English, French and Spanish, which is perfectly acceptable as the dialogue is easily heard. The soundtrack, by the way, is filled with some wonderful chestnuts, including tunes by Elton John ("I Guess That is Why They Call it the Blues"), Tears for Fears ("Everybody Wants to Rule the World"), Eric Clapton ("Give Me Strength") and Cyndi Lauper ("Girls Just Want to Have Fun"). As for the Verdict, Branagh, his cast and the film are all found not guilty and free to go, though MGM is fined for not injecting one special feature, not even a theatical trailer.
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