Four things to say about Four Weddings now it’s 25

Mike Newell’s marriage of satire and gentle tragedy revitalised British film: boosting Working Title while making a star of Hugh Grant and establishing the English posho as a bankable export. It’s been with us 25 years, but has the relationship stood the test of time?

Paul O’Callaghan
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Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Twenty-five years ago this month, a loose-limbed, low-budget British romcom about a group of affable toffs enjoying amorous encounters at society events became a surprise US box office hit, and swiftly blossomed into an unlikely pop culture phenomenon. Four Weddings and a Funeral charts the romantic misadventures of foppish “serial monogamist” Charles (Hugh Grant), who embarks on a cringe-inducing quest to win the heart of Carrie (Andie MacDowell), a glamorous American who moves in his elite social circle.

The film made an instant star of Grant, propelled director Mike Newell towards Hollywood’s major league, and transformed screenwriter Richard Curtis from respected sitcom scribe to Britain’s most bankable comedy auteur. It also led to a sales surge for the work of modernist poet W. H. Auden, whose ‘Funeral Blues’ is used to tear-jerking effect in an uncharacteristically sombre scene. The closing credits song, a mawkish cover of The Troggs’ ‘Love is All Around’ by Scottish soft rockers Wet Wet Wet, topped the UK charts for an excruciating 15 weeks.

In its unassuming way, Four Weddings transformed the British film industry. Grossing $245.7 million on a budget of around $4.4 million, it established a significant global appetite for screen stories about everyday life in the UK, paving the way for further homegrown smashes like Trainspotting and The Full Monty, and turning production company Working Title into an unassailable hit factory — in 2016 it became the first British company to earn $1 billion at the UK box office.

But with Hollywood today overwhelmingly fixated on franchise-building, it’s increasingly rare to see a humble romcom connect with multiplex audiences. And Curtis’s vision of the UK as a quaint, harmonious land populated almost exclusively by posh white people is an even further cry from today’s reality than it was back then. So how does Four Weddings hold up as a viewing experience in 2019? Here are four thoughts that struck me while rewatching if for the first time in over two decades.

Its pro-gay stance was shrewdly handled

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Viewed today, the film’s treatment of same-sex couple Gareth (Simon Callow) and Matthew (John Hannah) might seem frustratingly coy: displays of affection between the pair are largely limited to warm glances, and the word “gay” is never uttered. But at the time of Four Weddings’ release, LGBTQ+ screen characters were invariably defined by their otherness. The New Queer Cinema of the early 90s espoused a defiant rejection of mainstream heterosexual culture, while at the other end of the spectrum, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia attempted to elicit widespread sympathy for the community’s struggles by casting everyman Tom Hanks as a chaste lawyer dying of Aids.

Four Weddings, by contrast, depicted a happy, charismatic gay couple seamlessly integrated into a predominantly straight friendship group. More significantly, their relationship is conspicuously the most harmonious and healthy in the film — a fact poignantly underscored when Gareth drops dead at a wedding reception following a sudden heart attack. Matthew’s anguished eulogy and recitation of Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’, after he’s dismissively introduced by the priest as Gareth’s “closest friend”, gives this frothy comedy a bracing jolt of raw emotion.

Pointedly, Matthew begins his speech by remarking that “Gareth used to prefer funerals to weddings. He said it was easier to get enthusiastic about a ceremony one had an outside chance of eventually being involved in.” Thus, a full decade before the 2004 Civil Partnership Act offered UK same-sex couples legal recognition and protection, Four Weddings made the case for marriage equality in a manner that unenlightened heterosexuals could easily grasp. Reflecting on the film in a 2008 Guardian article, Callow wrote: “It almost defies belief, but in the months after the release of the film, I received a number of letters from apparently intelligent, articulate members of the public saying that they had never realised, until seeing the film, that gay people had emotions like normal people.”

Its gender politics haven’t fared so well

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

If Curtis and Newell warrant a pat on the back as queer allies, they deserve a slap on the wrist for the treatment of their female protagonist. In a film jam-packed with charming bit players, Carrie is a weak link. Setting aside Andie MacDowell’s strangely inexpressive performance, there’s a sense that Curtis never conceived of the character as anything more than an object of desire. With no sense of her perspective, we’re left with no choice but to judge her on the basis of her actions, which often seem fairly reprehensible. She appears to take perverse delight in leading Charles on, even after she reveals that she’s engaged to Hamish (Corin Redgrave), a man with few redeeming features beyond his substantial bank balance. When Charles finally summons the courage to confess his love to her, Carrie’s delayed response is to teasingly reference this in her wedding speech. Shortly thereafter, at Gareth’s funeral of all places, she ambiguously assures Charles “That thing you said in the street… I liked you saying it”, before heading back home to Hamish. And as if to rub salt in the wound, she waits until Charles’s own wedding day to drop the bombshell that her marriage has ended and she’s back on the market.

Viewed from a certain angle, Carrie might be considered a “strong” character, in that she dictates the terms of her relationship with Charles at every step. Her sexual self-confidence is also portrayed in a positive light: a memorable scene in which she recounts her 33 partners to an increasingly flustered Charles affords her a brief opportunity to come across as warm and witty. But aside from this, precious little effort is made to present her side of the story, and consequently her behaviour seems almost pathologically self-involved. We’re left with the uncomfortable sense that Charles, and by extension the filmmakers, are interested chiefly in Carrie’s unattainability and physical beauty, with little regard for her inner life.

It remains an unusually relatable portrait of British high society

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Four Weddings’ huge commercial success seemed to take all concerned by surprise, but in hindsight, perhaps it shouldn’t have come as such a shock. After all, the romantic lives of the British upper crust were a source of endless fascination in the early 90s, thanks to the one-two punch of the Charles and Diana separation and the Sarah Ferguson toe-sucking scandal, and the tabloid frenzy that ensued in both cases. The global public derived immense pleasure from the notion of prim royal households as hotbeds of clandestine passion, and from the revelation that these poised, privileged figures were as driven by base instincts as the rest of us.

As if to capitalise on this, much of Four Weddings’ humour is rooted in the illicit thrill of witnessing mild-mannered Brits behaving badly, from Charles’s expletive-laden journey to the first wedding, to the hilariously uninhibited sex scene between the wholesome-looking Bernard and Lydia. Furthermore, the filmmakers cheekily reference real-world royal controversy in the closing photo montage, by inferring that the sardonic Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas) ends up marrying Prince Charles.

But crucially, Curtis and Newell ensure that their gang of randy poshos is as relatable as possible. None of the key players, bar Carrie, seem particularly interested in money or social status. On the contrary, the obscenely wealthy Tom (James Fleet) is plainly embarrassed of his privilege, awkwardly flinching when Charles asks him “are you the richest man in England?” By confining the film’s focus to the titular gatherings, Curtis deftly keeps talk of work and politics off the table, so we’re never forced to consider the probability that these charming characters are all most likely raging Tories. And even Fiona, who embodies the elegant haughtiness we tend to associate with the aristocracy, is rendered deeply sympathetic in a heart-wrenching scene in which she matter-of-factly confesses her love for Charles, knowing full well that he doesn’t feel the same way.

It holds up far better than its successors and imitators

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

In a recent Deadline interview, Newell recalled “The big thing I remember is that we were very short of money. I remember talking to a cameraman about my grand ideas for the film . He stopped me and said ‘there’s only one thing I’m concerned with: that’s the 32 days of shoot.’”  Indeed, Four Weddings is a decidedly unremarkable visual experience, with functional camerawork and none of the surface gloss you’d typically associate with mainstream romcoms. But this lo-fi aesthetic works in the film’s favour today, lending it an air of authenticity that’s rare for the genre.

I was particularly struck this time around by the grittiness of the funeral sequence, which unfolds against a bleak industrial backdrop. In the same Deadline interview, producer Duncan Kenworthy explains that the scene was intended to echo the funerals of gay men taking place across the country at the time as a consequence of the AIDs crisis. “There are about six of my gay friends in the scene… One of them died of AIDs the year the film came out so it’s a wonderful thing to be able to see him in the film in a big ’80s suit. It felt real.”

This grounded, faintly subversive sensibility is largely absent from the film’s imitators, including those made by the same creative team. Written by Curtis and starring Grant, 1999’s Notting Hill was a brazen attempt to replicate the success of Four Weddings, adhering rigidly to its bashful-Englishman-meets-standoffish-American-beauty formula. Casting Julia Roberts as the love interest helped propel the film to an impressive $364 million box-office haul, and her jaded movie star Anna is a significantly more compelling and complex character than Carrie. But in every other regard, it’s inferior to its predecessor. Its crass whitewashing of a famously diverse neighbourhood is particularly egregious, but the notion of Grant as a bohemian bookseller is also hard to swallow, while Rhys Ifans’ turn as hapless housemate Spike is exasperatingly clownish.

Meanwhile Love Actually, Curtis’s directorial debut, plays to its creator’s flair for crafting witty, emotionally engaging vignettes. But it’s a scattershot affair with embarrassing low points, including a wildly misjudged section that sees Andrew Lincoln’s character essentially stalk his best friend’s new wife.

Or for a renewed appreciation of Curtis’s pithy dialogue and Grant’s effortless comic timing, take a look at Richard Loncraine’s woeful Wimbledon, in which Paul Bettany singularly fails to charm as a past-his-prime tennis star in pursuit of Kirsten Dunst’s feisty up-and-comer.

In short, if your enthusiasm for the androcentric British romcom has waned in recent years, you may be surprised by how well Four Weddings has stood the test of time.

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