A teenage girl becomes embroiled in all manner of backstage backstabbing when she joins a decrepit theatre company planning a production of Peter Pan.
Following a monumental hit like Four Weddings And A Funeral is no easy task, but director Mike Newell's decision to breathe life into Beryl Bainbridge's bittersweet comic novel smells like foolishness. It's an uneasy, unpredictable ode with more sharp edges than a razor-blade factory - but somehow, Newell makes it work. What's more, the film serves to prove that Hugh Grant is not just a pretty face and that newcomer Georgina Cates has talent to spare.
Set in a dismal '50s Liverpool, this is the coming-of-age tale of Stella (Cates), a sassy, inquisitive 16-year-old - given to sweeping emotions but rarely rattled - who finds employment with a ramshackle theatre company, led by the camp Meredith (Grant), in for the winter season with a trio of plays, culminating in a production of Peter Pan. Soon enough, the shambolic bunch proceed with a familiar pattern of ego-trips, secret liaisons, drunken binges and unexpected calamities. The chief of which - Captain Hook's broken leg - leads to the last-minute recruitment of O'Hara (Rickman, rattling with irony), a disreputable sot keen to entice Stella into his bed.
Although loaded with wry, theatrical nostalgia, the story has a heart as black as pitch, with the maudlin mysteries of Stella's absent parentage genuinely shocking. It takes much in the way of subtle direction and crafty performances to keep events from succumbing to the gloom, and Grant, especially, is a revelation as the charming but self-obsessed director, trailing a series of ambiguous sexual peccadilloes and broken hearts.
Those expecting a side-splitting Four Weddings follow-up will be disappointed, but Newell's serio-comic endeavour is in many ways a deeper, subtler, and more accomplished film than Four Weddings.