KENNETH BRANAGH began his movie-directing career with a classical twist - his "Henry V" was greeted as the best Shakespeare adaptation in ages - and ever since, he's seemed determined to overcome the artsy reputation this earned for him.
Both of his subsequent pictures, "Dead Again" and the new "Peter's Friends," sweat and strain to be modern, breezy, and cool. They manage to be all those things, but there's nothing relaxed or easy-going about them. For all his talent, Mr. Branagh hasn't yet learned something the old Hollywood masters knew well: how to produce the art that conceals art.
"Peter's Friends" gets off to a rambunctious start, with six wacky entertainers camping their way through a zany musical number. We soon meet the performers off-stage and discover who they are - a bunch of creative collegians about to leave their schooldays behind and confront the real world. The movie then zooms into 1992, a decade after their musical farewell to youth and freedom. Life has treated each of them differently, and they've all accepted a weekend invitation to a friend's country estate, wher e they'll share news of the past 10 years.
If this sounds a bit familiar, it's because Branagh isn't the first filmmaker to explore this nostalgic terrain. In many ways, "Peter's Friends" is a British rehash of "The Big Chill," which was itself a rehash of "Return of the Secaucus Seven," which wasn't that great a picture to begin with. In principle, there's nothing wrong with movies about friends cooped up with each other for a few days, as long as the friends are so interesting and involving that we don't mind being cooped up along with them. Th e characters in "Peter's Friends" pass this difficult test for awhile, but eventually I started wishing they'd all go home so I could go home too.
The best thing about "Peter's Friends" is its acting. The word "ensemble" is overused by critics - some reviewers toss it around every time two performers show signs of recognizing each other's presence - but in this case it's fully warranted, since every member of the cast seems fully in sync with all the others, even in scenes where a single character gets most of the dramatic moments and good lines.
The performances are so imaginative that they cover up the rather calculated nature of the screenplay, which strives to please every possible audience by alternating comedy and pathos, vulgarity and refinement, frivolity and seriousness with clockwork regularity. There's so much energy and goodwill in the acting that you can't help enjoying much of "Peter's Friends" while it's actually before your eyes. The moment it's over, though, you realize how craftily it played on your emotions, how carefully it en couraged the responses it wanted you to have. It's a friendly movie, all right, but also an aggressive one that leaves you feeling a bit manipulated at the end.
AMONG the performers, Branagh and his wife Emma Thompson get top honors as (respectively) a Hollywood sitcom writer and a publisher of self-help books who hasn't learned to solve her own problems. Stephen Fry is also fine as the host of the party, a faded aristocrat with a secret that provides the story with its serious climax.
Other cast members include Alphonsia Emmanuel as the most glamorous of the partygoers; Tony Slattery as her giggly boyfriend; Rita Rudner as a lowbrow actress; and Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton as a married couple recovering from a terrible family crisis. Applause goes to all, individually and as a group.
Roger Lanser did the good-looking cinematography for "Peter's Friends," and Andrew Marcus contributed the snappy editing. The screenplay is by Ms. Rudner and Martin Bergman.
* The film, which has no rating, contains several scenes involving sexual activity, vulgar language, and other adult situations; part of the story also concerns the current AIDS crisis.