20 Years ago Today: Four Weddings and a Funeral. (Film Review)

Civil partnerships (inaccurately titled “gay marriages” – they were neither exclusively gay, nor carried the same legal rights as marriages) were passed in an act of parliament in the UK in 2004, almost exactly ten years after Four Weddings and a Funeral, a film that buried it’s progressive themes under a bumbling British wit that somehow managed to take the most conservative of film genres, romantic comedy, and subvert it almost completely. It’s now twenty years since Four Weddings and a Funeral hit our screens, and became a spectacular success, catapulting Hugh Grant into his rom-com phase and completely gutting Andie McDowell whose career took a spectacular dive after the film.

The film is endearing and enduring for its clever LGBT themes, very transgressive for its time, and its a testament to Richard Curtis that he was able to win an academy award and Mike Newell garner a best film nom for the tale, particularly when seen in the context of Philadelphia, a film that was one of the first big Hollywood films to depict homosexuality in a realistic way, and only the second film ever to openly discuss HIV/Aids was only released a few months prior. Seen with 20/20 hindsight, Four Weddings and Funeral is about gay marriage, and nothing screams as clear twenty years on, but to bury this on the screen so that it plants in our subconscious only is the work of a very masterful screenwriter. The gay marriage is “appropriately” masked to protect the sensibilities of heterosexuals, but alluded to openly enough to satisfy the hearts of a liberal-minded movie-going audience, yet it is openly the only genuine love affair in the film, and is surrounded by failed, failing and repeatedly cocked up heterosexual marriages and relationships, leaving one with the impression love is a deeply subversive act that hovers around the edges of its own public conversation. Love isn’t at weddings anyway, true love is fully expressed at funerals.

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And back in 1994 gay men were dying, and dying often, but it wasn’t of heart attacks at weddings, many of their life partners being robbed and abandoned at the grave side by ill-informed angry families in denial and swept up in a barrage of hate informed by rumor and tabloid. Four Weddings and a Funeral is a series of vignettes, important scenes using the same rumor and suspicious effect to implant its own messages. A scene where Carrie (Andy McDowell) speaks of her thirty-three sexual partners in succession, shocking Charles (Hugh Grant) into shame over his nine and into sprouting that great line “I don’t know what I’ve been doing with my time”, reveals a dangerous casual approach to sex that would be seen in an entirely different light if Carrie were a gay male, is posited against the recitation of the Auden poem by Matthew (John Hannah), the climax of the film, the moment we all realise (Charles included) that the symbol of love and marriage is in commitment, fidelity and passionate love through all the highs and lows of being human. Auden’s’ Stop all the clocks’, announced by Hannah as “another great bugger” is the only moment of overt defiance in the film, the moment when all of us – in the film and out of it – realise the love shared by Gareth (Simon Callow) and Matthew. Parents are present, but we don’t know whose they are (Matthew’s or Gareth’s), friends are present and gay men are present.  No political points are scored other than to openly declare a passionately true and faithful love at the only civil ceremony these lovers are allowed.

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Cleverly the marriage of Gareth and Matthew is hidden behind the romantic machinations of Charles, so our focus is never drawn politically, the funeral being used as a vehicle for another meeting between Carrie and Charles, thus the audience are not forced to make a decision about the appropriate nature of the gay couple, they just are, their truth comes from existence rather than the heterosexual communities decision about them. It’s years later the films messages come to the surface and we start to realise why Four Weddings and a Funeral is so cemented in our minds and why it is such an important film.

Other acts of subversion around love occur, the principle being the protagonist in a romantic comedy is a male, and he is at weddings “always the groomsman, never the groom”;  the way that the convention of marriage often gets in the way of the “thunderbolt” another theme implying love is a thing one can’t help that hits from out of no where, another rather old-fashioned gay theme. Charlie has a deaf brother, “The dish can’t hear” Matthew says to a young woman who is instantly attracted to David (David Bower), whose deafness also serves no political purpose other than to inform the hearing that the deaf exist no matter what our political opinion.

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Problems exist, of course, within the female characters, and it is interesting that Four Weddings and a Funeral pretty much saw the end of McDowell’s roles as leading lady. The women are inextricably tied to the marriage message, so that they all come across as desperate, sex starved, bitter or sluts. When Charles first spots Carrie across the room, experiencing his ‘thunderbolt’ moment, Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas who does the absolute most an actor can do with probably the most poorly drawn horrible character in history) calls her a slut. We laugh, because we can all see Fiona loves Charles and is jealous of anyone he looks at, but in the end we are forced to conceded that she is indeed, a slut, as her thirty-three love count attests and her sexual proclivity points to an indecisiveness in love, serial infidelity and a lack of self-awareness that is bordering on the psychopathic. If Four Weddings and a Funeral is sending a subversive message that (male) homosexual love is true and worthy, it is also sending a message that women are tied-to-marriage fools who can’t be fully expressed without a male.

However, far be it from me to imply a great film is less great for the way it treats women (wink) and Four Weddings and A Funeral is a truly great film. If you haven’t watched it in a few years, take another peek and you may find its “now” attitude something of a surprise.

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