An Awfully Big Adventure


Mike Newell’s film “An Awfully Big Adventure” is from 1995 and based on Beryl Bainbridge’s 1989 novel. The novel was shortlisted for a Booker Prize in 1990, but still I’ve often talked to people who either don’t like the book or get the film. Or both. But you know what? That’s just because they don’t know their Peter Pan well enough!

 For Peter Pan lovers, “An Awfully Big Adventure” is a revelation; an updated, realistic and very surprising remake of Sir J. M. Barrie’s story about Peter, Wendy and Captain Hook. The story unfolds while we follow the star-struck teenager Stella Bradshaw in her struggle with both her past and her coming of age at a Liverpudlian theatre company just after WWII.

 The key to the film is the fact that each character is actually three: 1. The obvious film character. 2. The stage character that the film character plays in the staging of “Peter Pan” and 3. The “hidden” Peter Pan character that the film character resemble and which is or is not the same as character number 2. If you don’t get that, you’re going to miss out on a lot of the real drama of the film as what makes it unique is the clash between these different characters, both within them and between them. Sounds weird? Well, it isn’t!

 Hugh Grant plays the theatre director Meredith Potter and this is probably his best performance ever. Like Peter Pan he’s mean, self-centred, self-pitying and sometimes even disgusting. He has no interest in girls and he needs his enemy to be defeated in order to turn into Hook himself.

 Hook on the other hand – as well as Mr. Darling and the film’s character, the actor P. L. O’Hara – is played by Alan Rickman. He portraits a heroic, boyish loner with a tragic Fate and at least in my opinion, he’s much better as Hook than as O’Hara!

 Georgina Cates is the young, naďve, insecure and impertinent Stella Bradshaw, who is both Tinker Bell and Wendy. She is Tinker Bell on stage, but like Wendy she is stuck between two males: in love with the egotistical Peter “Potter” Pan and attracted to O’Hara Hook because he is able to give her what Potter-Pan can’t. Stella is however, as jealous and self-absorbed as Tinker Bell. Unfortunately the span between Tink, Wendy and Stella is too wide and it makes Georgina Cates’ character the only one in the film that isn’t quite believable.

 Peter Firth is cynical and disillusioned as the stage manager Bunny and his “hidden” character Smee, Prunella Scales is the strong, level-headed mother figure, cashier Rose Lipton, and Alan Cox is both annoying and pitiful as Geoffrey, the apprentice who’s both lost boy and pirate. The rest of the theatre cast and crew, lead on by Nicola Pagett, Carol Drinkwater and Clive Merrison, are all casualties of Potter-Pan’s whims that have turned them into fairies, lost boys, pirates and evil mermaids. Finally Alun Armstrong as Stella’s stout, kind and caring Uncle Vernon is worth mentioning. He’s brilliant!

 As a Peter Pan expert, I love “An Awfully Big Adventure”. Right from the title to the surprising ending this is a modern Peter Pan story through and though. Don’t be fooled by all the people running around in the film shouting “Stella!” making you think that this is “A Streetcar Named Desire”, because it’s not. It is Peter Pan and like Peter Pan it deals with sexuality, death, time and age and at the end, there’s even a very sophisticated and maze-like connection between Hook/Pan – the crocodile – the clock – Time – absent parents –make believe and death that is quite ingenious.

 “An Awfully Big Adventure” runs 113 minutes. It is by far my favourite Peter Pan related film, so I’ll give it 5 out of 5 stars: *****

 © Lise Lyng Falkenberg, 1996