What Hughie did next

Hugh Grant is squalid, there is no winsome dimpling, and sex is not embarrassing. Adam Mars-Jones warms to Mike Newell's An Awfully Big Adventure. Plus the Oscar-winning Blue Sky
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The Independent Culture
After the wry smirks and winsome dimplings of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mike Newell's An Awfully Big Adventure shows the world a different face, less beguiling but much more true. Though the new film is the one set in period (Liverpool immediately post-war), it is Four Weddings that peddles the fantasies, notably the charm of inadequacy. An Awfully Big Adventure, written by Charles Wood from Beryl Bainbridge's novel, is altogether rawer, particularly about sex. The attitude normally projected by British films is of romanticism undermined by embarrassment, while the characters here are cold about sex, without being prudish.

Hugh Grant, the face of Four Weddings, playing the sourly manipulative director of a theatre company, is not only cast against type (much to the benefit of his performance), but suffers a certain amount of glamour- abuse: his fingers are nicotine-stained from the start, and he has in rapid succession hangover-froth in the corners of his mouth, a gummy bile- stain on his lapel, a bleeding nose and an ugly bruise on his forehead.

Alan Rickman, playing a star actor called in at short notice to recreate his famous Captain Hook, has a smoother ride and benefits from an entrance that is doubly delayed. Not only does he not appear for the first half of the film, but he remains silent for his first handful of short scenes, which for this performer is like being off screen still. Almost all his acting is in the dry and haughty sherry of his voice, so deep and suave and stylised. With his sardonic vowels and his over-emphatic consonants, Rickman conveys an instinctive disdain, but also a weary sincerity, after the fact of disillusion.

The world of the film is the world of seediness and getting by, of coach trips and community singing, hardware shops and cafeterias, bleak or posh, of braziers and boils and bubble-and-squeak. These days Dublin looks more like Liverpool then than Liverpool now can manage, and many of the exteriors were shot there - the docks, the water so choppy it bounces. Newell is hardly the most cinematic of film directors, and the most self-conscious filmic sequence - a montage of Rickman on his motorbike, shot from below, searching the city for a lost love - seems motivated mainly by the fact that a blue sky in 1994 needs no set-dressing to resemble a blue sky in 1947.

Liverpool is there in some lyrical shots of dawn on the Mersey, in the low elephant grief of a ship's horn, in the kindliness, nosiness and stroppiness of the people. At one point, a single characteristic sentence floats over the wall from a churchyard where funerals are in progress: "How'd you get in front of us?"

The character-drawing is equally sharp on the locals and the visiting theatricals, with their monocles and their alcoholism ("I only drink because our house sustained a direct hit in Ealing," a line with a certain debt to Alan Bennett). Local priests attend play rehearsals, for instance, because the sin lies in watching an actual performance. The film-makers' attitude to Catholicism may be deduced from the sly way that Tinkerbell, in the company's Peter Pan, sounds very like an Angelus bell at the moment of the question, "Do you believe in fairies?"

Georgina Cates, making her film debut in the role of Stella, is in almost every scene and succeeds in holding everything together, though her function is often to receive impressions (often wrong ones) rather than make them. At times she looked like a retouched photo of the period, and she expresses an awkward but natural theatricality. As a child, Stella applauded the Blitz as if it were a show, and as a teenager she pitches real emotion ("He pursues me, he awaits me in the shadows") in a stagy register.

It shouldn't be forgotten that Mike Newell gave Miranda Richardson her hugely impressive start in Dance with a Stranger and Cates's performance here is comparably accomplished. A keynote here, though, is curiosity rather than passion. When Stella is initiated into sex, she moves instantly from her first kiss to pulling up her skirt and presenting her legs; her innocence looks whorish. As she practises, she improves. It's no different from learning the ukelele. When her lover is striving above her, at one point, she tells him to move his legs together and then says simply: "That feels different". It's good to be reminded, as Hollywood chooses not to remind us, that women are capable of uttering sounds in bed that are not moans of overmastering pleasure.

This year's Oscar for Best Actress was won, slightly mysteriously, by Jessica Lange for a film made in 1991. Blue Sky, which was the final film from its director, Tony Richardson, turns out to be a creditable, though not very thrilling, family drama, set in 1962, against a background of nuclear testing. Dad (Tommy Lee Jones), is a military scientist with a passion for the truth, Mom (Lange), is a fanaticist and a flirt who is always getting him into trouble. They have teenage daughters, who are clever and critical (one has a nuclear disarmament symbol above her bed).

Lange's performance is fine but hardly ground-breaking - in fact a variation of her early starring role in Frances. Carly, her character here, is like Frances Farmer a free spirit in a constraining world, and consequently both a life force and a liability to those around her. This time, though, she is not the main casualty of her own impatience with convention. Carly is insistently sexual, but also childlike, calling her husband "daddy" and her daughters "sister". She betrays trust but requires protection. In the film's oddest sequence, her eldest daughter sorrowfully disciplines her by making her confess an infidelity to her husband over the phone.

Blue Sky, with an autobiographical script by Rama Laurie Stagner, means to be pro-woman and anti-bomb, but contains a subtext that complicates and even contradicts those statements. The link between woman and bomb, latent in the culture, ("Sex Bomb", the bikini named after a test site) is explicit in the movie: when Carly's husband compares her to water, and says he long ago made the decision to love her basic properties, he adds jokingly that he didn't know at the time that the water was full of nuclear "fishin' ". Certainly when Carly, in a low cut red dress, dances with her husband's superior, it's clear that she is an unstable isotope of female sexuality. Just as the underground tests vent plumes of radiation, so her dancing triggers a release of uncontrollable energy. The working out of the plot has her understanding the limits of freedom, and taking responsibility at last for those around her. Effectively it returns her sexuality to the lead-lined box of marriage.

n Both films open tomorrow