By Aaron Cutler
By Amy Nicholson
By Simon Abrams
By Chris Klimek
By Nick Schager
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
Country living is often idealized in the movies, but director Michael Blakemore's Country Life is about the price of the so-called simple life. The setting is Australia in 1919--just as the lads are returning from the Great War--and cinematographer Stephen Windon captures the outback in ravishing, warm yellows. The rewards of living in such a place are self-evident. The plot of this subtly hilarious period comedy exposes the frustrations and the oppressive feel that even the loveliest of provincial isolation can breed.
Blakemore has moved Chekhov's great comedy of manners Uncle Vanya to a sheep ranch, and it has made the transition admirably. A young woman (Kerry Fox) helps her uncle (John Hargreaves), her grandmother (Patricia Kennedy) and a variety of servants run the place. Fox's mother is long dead, and her father has been long absent. He went to London without her when she was a little girl, to pursue a career as a theatre critic, subsidized by his wife's share of the family fortune.
As the film begins, Fox's father (played by Blakemore) returns from England to work on a book at the ranch, with a stunning, much-younger wife (Greta Scacchi) in tow. His family is initially thrilled. Like all colonials in this sort of Brit period piece, they are frantic to think of themselves as truly English. But Blakemore's effete, citified ways soon wear on the nerves of this rugged farm family.
The real problem, of course, is Scacchi. Hargreaves quickly falls in love with her, and is soon half-mad with resentful envy at the brother-in-law he slaved to keep in a glamorous lifestyle full of urban pleasures and beautiful women. He's particularly incensed when he at last reads the book Blakemore is compiling and realizes that his work hasn't even gone to support a real talent--his brother-in-law's just another fulsome, gossipy hack reviewer.
Fox, meanwhile, is already in love when the story begins--with the local doctor (Sam Neill), a handsome, decent fellow who drinks too much and who doesn't notice her infatuation. He and Scacchi lock in on each other at first sight, while Blakemore takes entirely too much notice of lush young maid (Robyn Cruze).
Blakemore keeps all this familial tension and erotic tizzy simmering under a surface of Merchant-Ivory-style civility, but the occasional eruptions keep it both more rowdy and more enchanting than the average Ivory soap. All of the actors--those mentioned above, plus Ron Blanchard as a friendly boarder and Googie Withers as a hard-nosed Irish maid--are captivating. But it's the hysterical whirlwind Hargreaves, in the "Vanya" role, who comes off strongest. His comic outrage is riotous, but it's not ludicrous or pathetic. Like unrequited love, it's just a survivable indignity, funny when it's happening to someone else.
Director Mike Newell's An Awfully Big Adventure, like Country Life, is about postwar Brits and sexuality. The story of a young, aspiring actress apprenticing at a repertory theatre in an English seaport a few years after the end of World War II sounds like a promising setup for a nostalgic period comedy. But Newell is working here in a mode closer to that of his early work, like The Good Father, than of his more recent hits Enchanted April and Four Weddings and a Funeral. An Awfully Big Adventure, adapted from the novel by Beryl Bainbridge, starts out brooding and grows grimmer as the disturbing plot unfolds.
The girl, a debut by the startling Georgina Cates, lives with a sympathetic working-class aunt and uncle. She's technically a student at the theatre, but she's actually an unpaid, slave-driven stage manager's assistant.
She develops one of those mindless yet unshakable crushes on the company's director (Hugh Grant), unable to see that he's a miserable, mean-spirited man who takes pleasure in breaking hearts as his has been broken. She's not alone in her feelings. The long-suffering stage manager (Peter Firth) loves the director, too, though he has no illusions about the creep's character.
Into the mix of this and several other plot lines comes a successful actor (Alan Rickman) with roots in the company, to take over the role of Captain Hook in Peter Pan (the movie's title is a line from the Barrie classic). He has a taste for young women, and soon he's sleeping with Cates, she only out of a desire to practice up for the day when the director will at last take notice of her. Then the plot takes a twist from the depressingly morose to the classically tragic.
Grant, with his monocle and strangled voice, acquits himself well in this character role, contributing much to the atmosphere of painful, unhealthy sexuality. His clammy poseur director is clearly trying to convince himself that he's an Oscar Wilde-esque tragic wit, and the queasy look in his eyes tells you how well he's succeeding. The rest of the large, superb cast--especially Rickman, Firth and Prunella Scales--is all impressive.
Awfully Big is absorbing, but, in the end, it's far less of a lift than Country Life. The former treats sexual desire as a sort of chronic disease that ruins everyone in one way or another. The latter treats sexual desire as a temporary madness that, in one way or another, makes everyone funny.
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