PETER'S FRIENDS (GB, 1992) ***1/2.. Directed and produced by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Rita Rudner and Martin Bergman. Cast: Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, Alphonis Emmanuel, Rita Rudner, Phyllida Law, Alex Lowe, Tony Slattery. Photography, Roger Lanser. Editing, Andrew Marcus. Production design, Tim Harvey. Musical director, Gavin Greenaway. A Samuel Goldwyn release. 100 minutes. Not rated, if so, R (strong language, adult talk and situations).

I mistrust movie reviewers yet I fell into the trap minutes before seeing the preview "Peter's Friends. " My eye caught a line in "Time" magazine that said "the film is awful." That was all I knew about this movie, except that it had been billed as "the British ' The Big Chill' ."

Thoughtlessly swayed by this meager knowledge, for the first minutes of the movie I felt negative. This is indeed "The Big Chill" I thought, "on its way to becoming The Big Sleep." But within minutes, the misplaced prejudice changed to pleasure. My verdict (but you should mistrust reviewers) : the British "Peter's Friends" is one of the most delightful films in months.

Six friends graduate from Cambridge in 1982 and go their separate ways. Ten years later, Peter, who had inherited his father's country estate, reunites the old gang between Christmas and the New Year.

Their gathering is a concentrate of personalities, moods and changes. But no matter what the shifts in ways, means or lifestyles, no matter what the disillusionments or their criticism of one another, the crucial line --their old friendhip -- holds.

The formula of the class reunion is itself an offshoot of the much wider recipe of a motley crew within an delimited space. As in Westerns ("Stage Coach"), war movies (soldiers is a foxhole, sailors in a submarine), passengers ("Ship of Fools"), or hotel residents ("Grand Hotel").

Peter's friends are a weird bunch all right but revelations about their nature, occupations and problems do not get spelled out right away. They surface gradually, and, mostly with much humor.

Affable, appealing host Peter (Stephen Fry) is a bisexual bachelor. Roger (Hugh Laurie) and Mary (Imelda Staunton) are married. Roger, a man of few words, sober -- almost somber -- is, of all things, a jingle-writer. Mary is obsessively --indeed hysterically-- worried about their boy, to the point of endangering the marriage. Then we learn that the child's twin had recently died.

Forlorn, lonely and rather eccentric spinster Maggie (Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh's wife in real life) is in the publishing business. She takes seriously one of her concern's self-help books, which advises that old friends make the best husbands. So Emma makes wonderfully gauche and funny advances at Peter, blithely unaware of his sexual nature.

Sarah (Alphonsina Emmanuel) is a feisty black actress who apparently has always been sex-crazed. She brings to the party her latest lover, actor Brian (Tony Slattery). They've been together for 15 days and cannot keep their hands off each other.

Andrew (Kenneth Branagh), a once promising playwright, is now a successful sitcom writer in Hollywood. He arrives with his wife Carol (Rita Rudner), the famous star of an afternoon TV soaper. Desperately disabused, Andrew takes refuge in wisecracks, one-liners, puns and jokes, quite funny ones.

The two outsiders are a pain, and out of place in that reunion. Brian, a loud lout, tells off-color jokes that hide a weak personality. Carol, an Ugly American, is neurotic, imperious, shallow, demanding. A diet and exercise faddist (she brings weights in her suitcase), she also practices secret eating.

The film is rich in dialogue as well as in developments, shifts, reversals or surprises. Something is always happening : always resourceful, the progress of events --whether Monty Pythonish, Neil Simon-ish, sitcom-ish, hysterical, raunchy, bitter, sad, or close to a French bedroom farce -- engage your attention.

With so much packed in it, the non-plot develops with structural subtlety. While the film revels in 1980s music, the turning point comes when Mary sits at the piano and sings the lovely Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields Oscar-winning song, " The Way You Look Tonight."

In the film "Swing Time" (1936) that song was the high point of Fred Astaire romancing Ginger Rogers. Here, as the friends join Mary in perfect harmony, it becomes an epiphany, the moment where all the old affections converge.

I have a special appreciation of filmmakers who can "think old"; who, like Woody Allen, are moved by ( and move us) with great popular music of earlier generations.

Here this penchant must come both from director Kenneth Branagh and from his writers . Branagh clearly loves the past, and is a connoisseur of older movies. This shows most discreetly in "Peter's Friends", as in the scene where Carol fusses about food with the housekeeper, along the lines of a passage in the classic "The Rules of the Game."

Branagh's "Henry V" harks back not only to Shakespeare but to Laurence Olivier's film masterpiece. And his second movie, "Dead Again," was fully derived from the American film noir genre.

Much of the acting is broad, but without the shallowness this word implies. Most of the performers have a strong background in English theater, and in television, which television is in Great Britain much closer to the stage than it is in the USA. Many of the actors too share a Cambridge University past. The result is excellent ensemble playing and characters that talk to, rather than at, one another.

The casting is both theatrically colorful and against type. The romantic Branagh is a cynic. Emma Thompson ("Howards End") gets away with being a charming flake. Hugh Laurie, a nincompoop on TV as Bertie Wooster in "Jeeves and Wooster", in "Blackadder" or in "A Bit of Fry and Laurie," is compellingly serious.

Stephen Fry, the wily Jeeves, is thoroughly restrained. His funniest line comes when Thompson enters his room and offers herself to him. Bewildered, Fry explains that he is bisexual but is not sleeping with anybody these days: " If I slept with women you'd be high on my wish list, together with Michelle Pfeiffer and [ slight pause] River Phoenix."

As it does in "Henry V" it is speech that carries the film, and not plot gimmickry as in Branagh's lesser "Dead Again." And whenever sentiment is on the brink of taking over, a good, funny repartee makes the situation swerve away from bathos. When major pathos does eventually take over, it is handled with tact and conviction.

Surprisingly, "Peter's Friends" was written by American comedienne Rita Rudner and her British, Cambridge-graduate husband. This is their first joint script to become a film, as well as Rudner's movie debut. (Her character, Carol, mercilessly etched out by writer Rudner, gets her first movie offer and, to everyone's relief, takes off for America).

Well-written, well-produced, well-acted and well-directed, "Peter's Friends" transcends its people's seeming shallowness in such unpretentious, entertaining ways that superficial judges might call the film skin-deep. Not.

[Published 15 January 1993]