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.