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An Awfully Big Adventure

An Awfully Big Adventure (1995) is an awfully odd movie, and an awfully muddled one — but one that offers many pleasures within its very depressing form. Set in the years following World War II when England was still rebuilding homes, hopes, and lives, it's the tale of 16-year-old Stella (Georgina Cates), a starstruck young innocent who joins a down-on-the-heels theater company. Hoping to eventually take the stage, Stella's mainly there to do odd jobs for the motley cast and crew members, and she falls head-over-heels for the company's gay artistic director, Meredith (Hugh Grant at his fey, callous best). When the lead actor in the company's production of "Peter Pan" breaks his leg, Meredith calls in a legendary actor to play Captain Hook, P.L. O'Hara (an extremely dashing Alan Rickman), who seduces the starry-eyed Stella — a move that has quite unexpected consequences. Director Mike Newell, whose grasp of comedic subtleties in Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Pushing Tin was flawless, has made very few bad films — in addition to the above he directed Donnie Brasco and Into the West, so he can be excused the occasional Mona Lisa Smile or Amazing Grace and Chuck. Based on the novel by Beryl Bainbridge, this one suffers from a lack of focus — Newell simply can't seem to decide if it's a comedy or a drama, and the performances — which also include turns by Peter Firth and Prunella Scales — veer wildly between the two. There's a great deal of humor in the script, but the overall tone is deeply sad, and the point of view careens between characters when it ought to be solidly zeroed-in on Stella. Still, there's a morose charm to the dark coming-of-age movie, and Newell's tragicomic take on the story is compelling all the way to the disturbing, Freudian conclusion. Fans of Newell's frothy Brit-com films may be put off by the darkness of An Awfully Big Adventure, which is a shame — despite its flaws, this is a unique film with marvelous performances, and one that ought to be seen for Grant and Rickman's work alone. New Line's DVD release is a slim disc, offering just the film in a very nice anamorphic transfer (1.85:1). This is a soft-focus movie, in the way that period pieces often are, with most scenes looking as if a fine mist of dust has been blown into the set to remind us that this takes place the past. Still, for all of that, this is a terrific transfer, richly colored with excellent detail. The audio, in DD 5.1 (English, with optional English or Spanish subtitles) is also very good, with 2.0 and DTS options as well. Extras are scant, just the theatrical trailer and trailers for other Fine Line DVD releases. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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