By the winter of 1942, the Russians had repelled German forces after the spectacular failure of Operation Barbarossa. Despite low morale, the Nazi war machine proceeded apace. One enterprising officer in particular, Reinhard Heydrich (then the Chief of the Reich Main Security Office), had engineered the mass extermination of Jews within the territorial control of the German advance in Russia during the autumn of 1941. In recognition of Heydrichâ€™s administrative prowess, he was charged by GÃ¶ring with submitting a plan for â€˜a final solution.â€™
German resolve to advance the extinction of the Jewish population was by January of 1942 a fait accompli. Nonetheless, Heydrich assembled Nazi political leaders at Wannsee to consolidate power by ensuring administrative compliance from the dozen or so agencies under their control. That conference is dramatized in Frank Piersonâ€™s BBC/HBO production of the events at Wannsee, which kicks off this monthâ€™s series of conspiracy-themed movie recommendations at RBC. Itâ€™s Conspiracy (2001).
The plot: Peter (Stephen Fry) has inherited a large estate and house from his recently deceased and very formidable father, whom he hated but now misses. He is also grappling with a serious personal problem — the nature of which is not revealed to the audience until late in the movie — that is causing him great strain. Unable to decide what else to do, he throws a weekend Christmas party for his dear friends from Oxbridge days. Once a young and happy troupe reminiscent of the Footlights (of which many of the actors in the film are alums), Peter’s friends have since run into their own painful challenges in life.
Rita Rudner, who is hilarious as a shallow and unhappy American TV star, wrote the witty script with her husband Martin Bergman. The script also includes some strong dramatic moments, even though it doesn’t quite seem to know how to wrap things up at the very end. Without spoiling the plot, Peter’s Friends also deserves praise as being one of the first major British movies to deal with a particular topic that had been too long avoided.
Director Kenneth Branagh gets the best out of the talented ensemble cast, even though he himself gives only a so-so performance (for whatever reason, with the exception of the Wallander series, Branagh always seems a bit too mannered and self-conscious when he plays modern parts). You are blessed with more than a bit of Fry and Laurie here, as well as good work by Imelda Staunton, Tony Slattery and Alphonsia Emmanuel. But the best performances of all come from the mother-daughter team of Phyllida Law as the housekeeper-quasi-parent of Peter, and Emma Thompson as a bookish turbo-neurotic who is secretly in love with him. I have never met anyone whose former boyfriend wrote self-help books right up to the moment he committed suicide, but if I did, I would expect her to be exactly like Thompson’s pathetic, nerdy but still very appealing Maggie Chester.
The film’s music is also enjoyable, including hits of the period (by Bruce Springsteen, The Pretenders and Tears for Fears) as well as a lovely version of Jerome Kern’s “The way you look tonight” sung by the entire cast (Imelda Staunton can really hit a note!). The then-popular music and focus on a particular British generation’s experience could have turned this into a period piece which would age badly, but the many laughs and the moving moments gives Peter’s Friends great appeal that extends to the present day.