Sunday, 30 April 2017

An Awfully Big Adventure to watch, as well as to read

I first watched the film for An Awfully Big Adventure back in 2014 when, in a crash course of research and film-watching I had taken it upon myself to go through practically the whole of Hugh Grant's filmography. At the time I had not yet read, nor ever even heard of, the book by the same title, on which the film is based. However, it being directed by Mike Newell, a hero in my eyes for pulling off Four Weddings and a Funeral on the miserable budget and just forty days of shooting (check my old post about that one here: ( , I knew I wanted to see what could only have been a masterpiece, I thought at the time. Newell delivers, as does Hugh Grant in his sleazy villainous role, but unfortunately the film was not a masterpiece at all. Back then I reviewed it from the point of view of someone seeing it not only for a first time, but also unable to understand the Liverpudlian accent used practically throughout and not having a clue what to expect or what the story was all about. The result of those first musings can be read here:

I have since then read through the book twice (fascinating book, artistic rather than mainstream and never boring) and rewatched the film in order to compare. The first thing that came to mind when I read Beryl Bainbridge's book was how closely the whole of the film followed the original. Yet film and book can never be alike in interpretation, because the two different media require different skills and can make use of different tricks as well as that the written word is about describing just enough for the reader to imagine the scenes as he will, whilst a film's job is to accurately bring to life those descriptions and to portray, even without being able to show us what's in a character's head as a book would, just what exactly is going on with the characters. In fact, visuals can convey things that words cannot. I found it charming yet disconcerting that this film did, a few times, tune into Stella's (the main character and a teenager) mind to tell us details that would otherwise have had to be left out.

But on to the real object of this post, which is the Book versus Film review I promised my readers a while ago. Please note that there are a few spoilers ahead but nothing that gives away the plot or ending in my opinion.

Bainbridge's novel is played out around Stella Bradshaw, a teenage girl in 1940s England, who is fascinated by and actually good at acting, if nothing else. She manages to take on an apprenticeship at a local theatre where she falls for the handsome but eccentric Meredith, the director, whilst settling in well with the rest of the cast and crew. As she slowly starts to find her place in the system and with the people around her, a newly arrived old-time actor returns to the theatre to play a main part vacated by another actor who has broken his legs. P.L.O'Hara, the most fondly mentioned actor who also appears to have been a womaniser with a lost love, notices Stella in a way she cannot yet understand and soon she finds herself in a relationship of sorts with the older man. Meanwhile, with Meredith still in the background, things are complicated in more ways than one.

The film relies totally on the book for plot but I have noted that a couple scenes have been slightly changed or that at times two facts have been intertwined into one clip. Also, the film leaves quite a bit out and yet tries to fit in other facts without giving them the attention they require in order to make sense. It starts with non-sequential clips that had me thinking how the film plays out best for those people who've read the book rather than as a stand-alone. One thing to its advantage is that it gets progressively better to the point where it becomes gripping towards its surprise end.

Meredith and P.L. O'Hara in the film, picture from
In a line I enjoy with each watch of film and trailer, Hugh Grant's character tells his newly assembled cast before the start of the season that they're all the best people for the job, given the money. It truly seems to me that this film was put together in the same way, using the best resources and scripting that were possible when making what looks to me to be a low budget film. It also does have some good camera angles.

All in all I would prefer reading this book rather than watching the corresponding film for this story, yet even after two read-throughs of the book, one particular scene in the film made me understand a part of the book that's important to the ending much better than reading it had. In the one touching scene for Grant's character, Meredith gives his interpretation of a particular play to Stella. Her idea is that it is a film about unrequited love, his is that it is about death and the survivor. His imaginative description of what death is, after all, to the living, becomes pivotal to Stella's and the film's final scene. Twice I read the book and twice this had escaped me, as well as on the first viewing when my ears were not yet as tuned to the thick accents and the British accents in general. In all probability this was due to that a book is usually read in fits and starts and it is rarely the case that one could pick up a story and go through it at one time. With a film, in an average of two hours, the viewer is given the whole picture, and not enough time to forget details that might previously not have seemed important enough to remember, as would happen in a book.

The film is also to be praised for some minute details that make it more haunting, in keeping with the atmosphere of its final few scenes. It gives Stella a flashback, one that is used throughout, where the girl can still remember the last time she saw her mother when still a baby. I believe Stella did used to think back to her past in the book too, but not in the particular instance I am about to mention. When the flashback happens again right after a very particular end to her relationship with O'Hara, Stella and the audience can hear a very distinctive and finalistic click as the door closes behind her mother. I would not like to give away the ending so I will just say that it was a very aptly timed artistic touch in adding to the great loneliness Stella must have been feeling.

O'Hara with the girl Stella (
This has turned into a rather long post but I cannot end it before adding a very important piece of praise for all the main actors involved in this film. Despite the episodic and sometimes erratic nature of the script as well as a story that is quite difficult in my opinion to visualise and interpret, Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant in their respective roles as hero and antagonist pulled off the dark characters marvellously and Georgina Cates (not her real name but the one in the credits for this film) managed to capture Stella's innocent and odd nature in a way only a natural young innocent could.

Janet Maslin, who was a critic for The New York Times for twenty-two years up to 1999, wrote about this film back when it came out and her review is spot on so here it is for you all in case you'd like a read:

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