Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Rita Rudner and Martin Bergman
I can't quite figure out if Dead Again was considered a legitimate hit—it made some money and feels like it lodged itself just below the pop cultural waterline with enough of an impact to not be forgotten, but maybe not a hit—but either way, following a year of exertion in Hollywood its director and star Kenneth Branagh decamped back to the United Kingdom to do something on a significantly smaller and more intimate scale. That is to say, he rented a giant manor house for his next movie, but it's Britain, so they dot the tiny landscape anyway and they're basically available as AirBnBs; the goal was a lot more human, and a lot less beholden to any American-style high concept nonsense like "a reincarnated murderer and his victim meet again in L.A."
I cannot tell you, as a matter of historical fact, whether Branagh was actively casting about for something immediately following Dead Again, or if he was approached by Rita Rudner and Martin Bergman with this script, or if Branagh had simply gravitated naturally toward Bergman, himself an expatriate Briton since marrying the American comedienne Rudner in 1988, whereupon they realized, like apparently all Britons in show business, that they knew most of the same people. But whatever it was, it would be, hypothetically, a low-key, rather English affair—they called it Peter's Friends—which was definitely only a modest success in its day and has sunk well below the waterline since then, so that what we have is the first unambiguously "minor work" of Branagh's directorial career. That title alone is a challenge in its overcast drabness, and it is, indeed, lacking in American-style high concept nonsense. I probably don't need to tell you that I missed it when I was ten, and was not extremely enthusiastic about filling the gap now. Yet I should have had more faith: it does not have the automatic heftiness of Henry V, or the automatic appeal of Dead Again, but it might be my favorite Branagh film to date, precisely on the basis of being a smaller, more intimate, and really only hypothetically a low-key affair.
My spirits were leavened by the ensemble Branagh put together, and the immediate impulse is to describe it as "once in a lifetime" or something equally hyperbolic; of course that could scarcely be the case, since basically every piece of British media for a thirty year span already stars some configuration of more-or-less the same cast (the film's about a bunch of pals who had an acting troupe together during their time at Cambridge, played by a bunch of pals who, going on about half the cast here, likewise had an acting troupe together, along with Bergman, during their time at Cambridge; at least Branagh himself only met them later what with the whole "not being English" thing). But that doesn't mean it can't be special in its own right, and leaving the incestuousness aside (Emma Thompson is in this, obviously, but so is Phyllida Law, her mom), the fact of having a collection of veteran comic actors who could also be terrifically strong dramatic actors and who all seem to be keenly aware that this sort of isn't really, fundamentally "a comedy," and who also have such long histories with each other, gives it that kind of lived-in vibe that would be very hard to replicate otherwise. It probably did a non-trivial chunk of Branagh's work for him, with characters and relationships worked out by their performers so that even something like the blocking here, the result of a modestly complex web in the script and made vastly more complicated and potentially artificial because of how Branagh approached the film as a visual object, still feels like the natural physicality of six old (and pretty incestuous) friends, plus a pair of hanger-on exogamous sex partners.
What we have is a pretty classic scenario, then—my previous sentence practically summed it up already—such as had been most recently done in a culturally significant way in The Big Chill, which I've never seen, so I mention it mostly just to let you know I'm not unaware of it entirely. So: upon his father's death, Peter (Stephen Fry) has inherited his title and his demesne, an enormous house out in the English countryside (played by the extremely Britishly-named Wrotham Park). Having lost his father and having hit his thirties, Peter is feeling nostalgic and achy, and thus, with January 1st arriving shortly, he decides the best way to cheer himself up is to ring in the new year with his old Cambridge gang. So let's meet Peter's friends: there's Mary (Imelda Staunton) and Roger (Hugh Laurie), who got married after university and began a successful—if not particularly artistically satisfying, perhaps—jingle-writing partnership, and who have suffered a recent personal tragedy that we can figure out the shape of long before it becomes the occasion for a horrific social gaffe; there's Sarah (Alphonsia Emmanuel), a costume designer who goes through men, such as her new beau Brian (Tony Slattery), like one might go through socks; there's Maggie (Thompson), who's become a garden-variety neurotic cat lady self-help writer, and has, for years, secretly loved Peter; and there's Andrew (Branagh), who's been gone the longest, having moved to Los Angeles to be a miserable screenwriter, winding up in a collapsed marriage with an American, Carol (Rudner), a mid-tier sitcom star (and one is not sure how allegorically one is to take this as regards either Branagh's or Rudner's real life as it stood in 1992, though Rudner and Bergman are still married today, so that's nice). Anyway, as usually happens with these things—or so I'm told—we get a mix of bedroom farce and dramatic recriminations (and more the latter than the former), their reunion testing who these men and women are and what they mean to each other.
Now, where this could have screwed up—and depending on your temperament, it's entirely possible that for someone else it still does—is that it has founded itself upon the interaction of a bunch of comedy people (or else former comedy people who nonetheless miss being comedy people), and who are therefore constantly trying to be clever yet constantly overestimating how clever they actually are. Peter's Friends knows this, and its first scene is something of a reassurance, as we hark back to the Cambridge days and find our six principals putting on an embarrassingly British show involving an unfunny comic song and something I won't dignify with the term "cross-dressing," thereby immediately threatening us with the kind of unsustainable shrillness that's always an inherent danger in such a project even when it brings in such traditionally amusing figures as Fry, Laurie, or Slattery; the show is treated in a long take that gradually pulls away from our principals to circle around the dinner table in Peter's dad's mansion—this isn't even an actual show—revealing their sexagenarian audience, almost all of whom are egregiously bored, and most of whom are visibly annoyed. Eventually the song ends and the group retreats to the kitchen, the camera following along, where they whine about how much they suck. (Maybe this is the American influence of Rudner's contribution to the script—"yes, dear, but weren't you incredibly lame back at Cambridge?"—though Carol is just as much a figure of curdled condescension as anyone else, if not moreso, for her own Hollywood ways.)
The pull-back to the audience is one of the film's several laugh-out-loud moments—the real laugh-out-loud-very-hard part being the one old man who's literally fallen asleep at the table, as the musical number is pretty loud so one's first instinct is that he just up and died rather than sit through it—but almost all of these bigger laughs arise at weird and satisfying angles to the screenplay itself. The cast has been charged with trying to be funny a great deal of the time, and because they're Fry and so on (Laurie, oddly, winds up with one of the more buttoned-down characters here), they're too well-calibrated to be completely obnoxious (though Slattery, unfortunately, having been charged with being mostly obnoxious, does nail it), but virtually everything that's genuinely funny doesn't happen when they're trying but when they are, in fact, being genuine. This is the way the screenplay's built and Branagh, with remarkable intelligence, follows suit—I can sometimes overplay Branagh as a garrulous and reckless filmmaker (and as this review's not done yet, we'll absolutely get there), because I like that about him, but he was very much a natural, starting with the climax of Henry V, at figuring out how the distinct aesthetics between scenes can work together to make an argument, and he does that here with an incredible amount of thought put into how his construction of one scene would change how another one would feel.
Peter's Friends isn't totally dogmatic about it, but there's a very clear stylistic gulf that Branagh wants you to notice between the scenes where his ensemble is together and they're desperately trying to be impressive to one another, these being defined by bombastic mobile long takes and elaborate choreography and a great deal of faintly irritating witticism-adjacent banter, and the scenes where they've paired off and they're really themselves, not necessarily devoid of wit (they're still well-educated upper-crust Brits after all), but uniformly less irritating and now allowed to express actual and often very messy human emotions, while the camera usually sits oppressively still and permits the scene to play out, with its movement, if it moves at all, being pared down to the ruthless minimalism of almost imperceptibly-slow zooms that can feel devastatingly intense thanks to the flailing hyperactivity full of deliberate clowning of the scenes on either side of them. Then there might be a third mode Branagh's tapping into, with a sort of stalking, observational camera that still moves, but stealthily, like it's waiting to ambush the characters, which he brings out when someone's about to really fuck something up.
There is, too, a fourth mode, and I don't even know what the hell to make of it except that Peter's Friends sees Branagh experimenting—"experimenting" like a child might experiment with their parents' handgun—with pop song montage, starting immediately after that film-opening university-days prologue with a "was this even made bespoke for this movie?" collage of TV footage set to "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," which otherwise so resembles the intro to a PBS (or BBC, whatever) talking heads program and is so mindless in its insistence that some history occurred during the 1980s that I'm surprised and, yes, even disappointed that the song isn't "We Didn't Start the Fire" instead. It's going to feel like I'm talking about this lot, but it is in fact a lot of the damn movie—it eventually settles down around the hour mark—but there are so many pop song montages that I'm fairly certain one of the pop song montages accidentally bumps directly into another pop song montage. It is astonishing that this little movie had this kind of music budget and it's insane that Branagh was this determined to use every last penny of it—"Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and "Hungry Heart" will give you an idea of the leaden literalism with which it got used, and I'm not sure it always rises to the level of literalism rather than pure "I like this song" randomness—though in a way that nicely complements my "let Branagh blindly grope his way into excellence" thesis, he finally arrives on ironic pop song montage, with "What's Love Got To Do With It," and uses that one pretty well. Prior to this point the most useful thing it's done is stamp "made in 1992" on every scene, something the screenplay does fine with all by itself—the concerns and the particular expressions of these concerns embodied by this screenplay are practically the most 1992 things imaginable—but as far as the script goes, I mean that in a good way. (I guess there's an argument that in a film that's defined, likewise in a good way, by a lot of dizzying tonal whiplash, throwing one more seriously disorienting element into the mix is more productive than it sounds like.) But what feels like a good half hour of this 100 minute picture is basically a series of intros to a 90s sitcom, though in fairness Peter's Friends sort of is that.
And it does have a great deal of broad sitcommery—also usually inflicted upon the story as a weird disorientation, so also usually effective—but while I cannot call a movie that has such a well-judged visual scheme "an actors' movie" in any strict sense, what ultimately matters the most is those actors. All would be worth discussing, but I'd prefer not to bog this review down (or spoil anything), except to mention that the absolute standout is Staunton, who has the single most damaged character and delivers the most minutely heartbreaking acting beats here alongside Laurie, and I could perhaps point out Fry's host's interesting deployment as something more like a structuring absence (until he very much isn't), and given the reason for our season is Branagh himself, let's praise (praise? yes, I think I've decided it's good) his rendition of an alcoholic falling off the wagon, which rides a potentially camp line. But everyone is good, even Slattery being deliberately off-putting, and they benefit from a film that thinks every one of them is at least kind of an asshole but every one of them deserves sympathy, and I'm impressed by the way the film manages to dredge this much warm humanity out of a scenario that was, by their characters' own design, supposed to only be a frivolous sitcom weekend out in the country, the whole cast fighting a losing battle with being scintillating company, but ultimately given the consolation of good friends.