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‘Peter’s Friends’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 25, 1992

With a smattering of one-liners, and a dash of ironic spirit, "Peter's Friends" is a diverting, if modest affair. A romantic farce directed by Kenneth Branagh, it's about the reunion of six English college friends after 10 years of marriage, parenthood and other postgraduate experiences. Set in a stately English home, with a light, modern pop soundtrack, it suggests a British version of "The Big Chill" or "Return of the Secaucus 7."

The movie opens with the infamous event that brought these individuals together on New Year's Eve, 1982: The six students (including Branagh and Emma Thompson) performed a musical review in androgynous costume for a notably unimpressed audience at troupe member Stephen Fry's family estate. By the way, the great question remains unanswered: What is it about virtually every British performer's insatiable desire to play girlie?

Anyway, this collegiate drag show indelibly bonds the Silly Six. After a news-footage montage of Real Life Events, including the Falklands skirmish and Ayatollah Khomeini's little revolution, a decade passes. Fry (he's "Peter"), who continued on page 30 from page 28 has just inherited the estate, invites his stockinged cohorts to a New Year's Eve weekend of re-bonding and memory sharing.

It doesn't quite turn out the way he planned. His guests have lived through more than their share of grown-up problems, which they bring to the party in spades. Playwright Branagh, who went to Hollywood and made a successful sitcom, is now unhappily married to the show's American star, Rita Rudner, who has a difficult, high-maintenance personality. Bookish loner Thompson is determined to shake up her solitary life by finding a husband. She chooses Fry, who is nothing if not effete. Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton, who have married each other, carry a later-to-be-disclosed trauma from their personal lives. Meanwhile, Alphonsia Emmanuel shows no lack of acceleration in her fast-lane desire for dangerous romantic dabblings. On her arm is boisterous, friendly Tony Slattery, who happens to be married.

In addition to its debt to "The Big Chill," the movie, scripted by Rudner and husband-collaborator Martin Bergman, borrows from Shakespearean romantic comedies, French farce and American TV sitcom. Everyone will undergo change, from breakup to self-realization to the confirmation of a relationship. There will also be a healthy share of earth-shattering confessions, from bulimia to decade-long resentments; and there will be secret hanky-panky after the lights are out.

"Peter's Friends" is not rip-snortingly brilliant. The character resolutions are too schematically contrived. As for the soundtrack, which includes arbitrary light-pop selections from Bruce Springsteen to Queen, it seems merely thrown together for contemporary appeal. The movie does spend time with its characters -- in keeping with the wonderfully British attitude that character can be aired in small but significant ways, rather than in action-bound exaggeration.

That time is best spent with Thompson. Even as a rather one-dimensional character, she exudes grace and an adroit sense of comic tragedy. "Fill me with your little babies," she pleads desperately to an aghast Fry. Her delivery is as funny as it is achingly heartfelt.

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