"Peter's Friends" can be seen as a British version of "The Big Chill". Like the American film, it deals with a group of old university friends meeting up several years after graduating. In 1982 Peter, Andrew, Roger, Mary, Sarah and Maggie were all members of Cambridge University student comedy troupe. In 1992 Peter, the son of an aristocratic family, invites his friends to celebrate New Year at the stately home he has recently inherited from his father. Joining the party are Sarah's boyfriend Brian and Andrew's American film star wife Carol. Roger and Mary are now married to one another; Peter and Maggie are still single (although Maggie, it turns out, nurses an unrequited passion for Peter).
As the weekend progresses, we learn more about the members of the group and the secrets which some of them are hiding. It becomes clear that Roger and Mary have recently suffered some great misfortune, but the nature of this is only gradually revealed. The first great shock comes when the audience discover that Brian is in fact married with a son and is cheating on his wife with Sarah. Thereafter the revelations come thick and fast, the final one, involving Peter himself, coming right at the end.
The comedy troupe was obviously based on the famous "Footlights" to which cast members Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson and Tony Slattery all belonged, although the rather naff sketch we see them performing might indicate why none of the fictitious characters, unlike their real- life counterparts, have gone on to become professional comedians. Scriptwriter Martin Bergman was also a former Footlight; he wrote the script together with his wife, Rita Rudner, who also plays Carol. (Perhaps I should declare an interest. I myself was a Cambridge contemporary of some of the cast, and knew Stephen Fry personally).
A film like this one could easily have ended up as little more than a country-house soap opera for intellectuals. That it does not is due partly to Bergman and Rudner's literate script and partly to the skill of the cast members. In 1992 several of these were known mainly as comedians, or at least as comic actors, but although there are moments of humour, this is more a character study than a comedy. There are no stars; this is very much an example of ensemble acting. Special mention should go to Stephen Fry as the kindly but haunted Peter, Kenneth Branagh (who also directed and produced) as the recovering alcoholic Andrew, struggling to cope with the demands of his Hollywood writing career and with marriage to the tempestuous Carol, Branagh's then wife Emma Thompson as the frumpy Maggie, Tony Slattery as the arrogant, bumptious Brian and Alphonsia Emmanuel (an actress I have not heard much of recently) as Sarah. There is a nice contrast between Hugh Laurie's Roger and Imelda Staunton's Mary, both recovering from their shared tragedy but in very different ways.
"Peter's Friends" is in many ways a very British film, just as "The Big Chill" was very American. Although it involves strong emotions, several of the characters deal with them with a typical British reserve and "stiff upper lip"; this is particularly true of Peter himself, Roger and Maggie, and to some extent of Andrew, although he loses his stiff upper lip when under the influence of alcohol. It does not have the overtly political content of "The Big Chill", although it does deal with a broadly similar theme, the way in which youthful idealism can be corroded by the harsh experiences of adult life. One of the best psychological dramas of the nineties. 8/10