The Subversive Awkwardness of Four Weddings and a Funeral

Released 20 years ago, Richard Curtis's shockingly successful romantic comedy managed to evoke real life with bumbling characters who defied stereotypes.
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The story of Four Weddings and a Funeral’s success is about as likable as the movie itself: With a name that sounds like a working title the producers forgot to change, the low-budget tale of a bumbling bachelor somehow broke the box office, made an overnight international star out of Hugh Grant, and earned a Best Picture nomination.

How did a film (in U.S. wide release 20 years ago this week) shot over one month for four million dollars end up grossing more money than any British film made before it? The answer may lie in the movie’s refreshing take on romance. In an era of glossy erotic dramas ruling the box office (Basic Instinct, Indecent Proposal, Sliver etc.) filmgoers were apparently ready to watch a bunch of awkward British patricians attempt, and usually fail, to navigate sex and love. Grant’s endearing Charles at one point even mutters to Andie MacDowell’s Carrie, “Oh God, for a minute there I thought I was in Fatal Attraction.

From the first, expletive-laden line (“Oh fuck, fuck fuck… fuck”) in Richard Curtis’s screenplay, the British sitcom writer immediately lets you know that he’s not telling another tale of the quietly restrained customs and code of the British aristocracy. In his high society the affluent are self-deprecating and foul-mouthed—the most repeated words in the movie are “fuck” and “splendid.”

Writing upper-class characters with empathy is not easy, but Curtis succeeds here by exposing their self-awareness. They know they are preposterous, as Charles reveals to Carrie— “I’m going to stay at a friend’s house; well I think ‘enormous castle’ is a more accurate description.”

In fact, Curtis and director Mike Newell managed to play every role against type: the vicar is OK with a gay man eulogizing in the church; the rich are never snooty; people who aren’t evil or French smoke cigarettes; the protagonist bullies his deaf brother; a gay character dies, but not of AIDS. Even the two romantic leads invert the typical gender roles of the genre—Grant’s birdbrained and flighty Charles fills the role normally resigned for the girl, against Andie MacDowell’s strong and dry-witted (though often maligned) portrayal of Carrie.

There’s even a charm in the quirkiness of the late Charlotte Coleman’s Scarlett and Simon Callow’s Gareth. Like many Brits of old money, they are eccentrics—but also they’re grounded in reality, and like everyone else, touched with tragedy. The story additionally resonates in the transatlantic pairing of the aimless British man with the visiting American girl, a formula Curtis would later repeat in Notting Hill and About Time. This dichotomy forms the base of much of the humor. Charles: “Do you think there really are people who can just go up and say, "Hi, babe. Name's Charles. This is your lucky night?" Matthew: “Well, if there are, they're not English.”

In Grant, director Mike Newell found the perfect vehicle for Curtis’s diffident lines, each sentence dotted with pauses and stutters. There is maybe no part in the history of film with more ellipsis on the page than that of Charles. In fact, the character manages to communicate most succinctly when signing to his brother rather than using his mouth. Grant’s comedy chops are often overlooked, but he gets the laugh every time here by digging down through manners and mores to finally find that repressed British emotion.

In the space of a few weeks, Grant went from holding down small parts in period pieces and leading dreadful German gothic horrors, collecting only $35k for the role of Charles, to being a household name and accompanying Liz Hurley in That Dress at the premiere. It’s a shame that, due to his infamous indiscretions on Sunset Boulevard, Grant was later forced to take on less likeable and humble roles, playing a Simon Cowell-like mean judge in American Dreamz and fist fighting with Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’s Diary.

MacDowell has received a lot of criticism for her role as Carrie, and for one line in particular. It’s true that she can sometimes come across as a little wooden, but people overlook the darkly sardonic corner of Carrie that MacDowell had been going for. “It’s still raining, I hadn’t noticed” is strangely delivered, almost as if the actress were already knowingly parodying its ridiculousness. But the scene is tonally jarring anyways, abruptly moving from irreverence into melodrama with an overbearing orchestral score and clearly fake lightning strikes. Regardless, that final sequence became iconic, a staple of Hollywood parody.

The film still works, though, not because of those big scenes—the returned lover soaking in the storm, or the bereaved partner reciting W. H Auden’s “Stop All the Clocks” at the funeral—but the little moments in between.

Kristin Scott Thomas has only a handful of lines, but her quiet portrayal of the forever-overlooked Fiona is simply devastating. At Gareth’s funeral she kisses Charles on the cheek, and the moment is charged with an emotion seldom seen on screen—the resigned loneliness when unrequited love, once declared, slips into friendship. Grant also plays it beautifully; it’s a quiet, nuanced beat of dignified disappointment that feels authentic. This relationship may form the real heart of the film.

Even characters who appear in act one as little more than bumbling cartoons gradually get sketched into relatable people marred by sadness. When James Fleets’s “Has anyone else stepped in a cow pat?” Tom confides his philosophy for love to Charles, it’s both funny and heartbreaking—“Unlike you I never expected the thunderbolt, I just hoped that I’d find a friendly girl and pop the question, settle down and be happy. It worked for my parents, well except for the divorce and all that.”

Curtis recently said that he was compelled to write the script after attending 72 weddings in five years, and getting frustrated that Hollywood romances “left all the interesting bits out.”  In Four Weddings and a Funeral he succeeded in filling in those gaps, and more. Though he would later overdo sentimentality with the frothy whimsy of Love Actually, there is a bite and realism here that salts the sugar. The result was a fully realized portrait of a group of friends with genuine love and heartache—people whose very ordinariness, despite their class, made their tale extraordinary.

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Andrew Wallace Chamings is a British writer, journalist, and screenwriter in San Francisco. He contributes to the San Francisco ChronicleSF Weekly, and Drowned in Sound.

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