Directed by Mike Newell in a sharp turn away from the levity of his 1994 Four Weddings and a Funeral, it's the story of 16-year-old Stella Bradshaw, who, having no other career interests or aptitude, goes to work for a struggling Liverpool theater company. Stella is romantically inclined toward Meredith Potter, the theater's director (Hugh Grant), never seeing that his interests are otherwise inclined. It's the attention of another actor altogether that she attracts, and reciprocates to some extent. Stella is obtuse, self-interested, stubborn, and often hilarious. She's also confident and calculating in a way that ensures her survival in this group of other self-interested and highly dramatic people.
"The best Captain Hook there has ever been," one of the troupe says of P.L. O'Hara (Alan Rickman), the famous actor who returns to Liverpool to take the place of an injured troupe member--and also for reasons of his own. While I'm personally partial to Jason Isaacs' 2003 movie Hook, and would never be able to forget I was watching Rickman, I can't deny his Shakespearian appropriate for the character in J.M. Barrie's play. And I can certainly see O'Hara's appeal to various members of the theater company. As well, there's a gravitas to Rickman's O'Hara that brings across the bittersweet nature of the text.
The movie makes reference to O'Hara playing Richard II on stage, which dovetails with Rickman's character Alexander Dane in 1999's Galaxy Quest, an actor bitter that his success comes from his time on a TV space adventure rather than because of his stage portrayals of Richard III. Rickman himself studied Shakespeare with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. And it was with the Royal Shakespeare Company that he played the Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaison Dangereuses in 1985, which led to a Broadway run and a Tony Award nomination. While Rickman may be best known as a film actor, he also enjoyed great success on the theatrical stage--not unlike P.L. O'Hara.
In some ways this story is better suited for the book, which received a Man Booker Prize nomination. Some of the important plot developments become Hollywood-ized in the movie in a way that robs them of their full impact and emotion, and Bainbridge's black humor is sometimes lost to sentimentality. It's one of the few short novels that I don't think skimps on character development--in fact, I think Bainbridge's sometimes acid approach works to flesh them out in a way the film does not. Stella, in particular, is calculating in a way I don't think comes across fully. But the cinematic version has the performances, and they're worth seeing. Hugh Grant plays against his loveable romantic lead persona, and I took notice of Prunella Scales, otherwise known as Basil Fawlty's wife Sybil in Fawlty Towers, as actress Rose.
Clare Woodgate is a lovely Stella with an interesting story of her own: After being turned down for the role after her first audition, the 20-year-old, middle-class, Essex actress returned in the persona of a 17-year-old redhead from working-class Liverpool named Georgina Cates and read for the part again. Not only did she get the part, she received an Actress of the Year nomination for her performance from the London Critics Circle Film Awards in 1996.
Rickman, director Newell said, wasn't pleased with Cates's dissembling. "He treated Georgina very tactfully, presuming that she was sexually inexperienced and could get upset by the scene. Well, who knows, maybe she was."
I was surprised to realize I'd seen Cates before, in the 1998 movie Clay Pigeons, which I've always thought is underrated and which features a couple of my favorite songs from the band Old 97s. Proving once again that everything in my life seems to circle back around to Peter Pan and Captain Hook and The Stowaway.
An Awfully Big Adventure is also available as an audiobook read by Paul McGann, whom I think would be an excellent Hook actor in his own right, if only he were as tall as the character as described by J.M. Barrie.