Muriel's Wedding Review
The small town of Porpoise Spit, New South Wales. Socially awkward Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette) is regularly dumped on by those around her, not just by the group of friends she wants to get in with, but by her father Bill (Bill Hunter) as well. But she dreams of a wedding – her own. That group of friends make it very clear that they don’t want Muriel around on their island holiday, but Muriel uses a blank cheque (intended for her to buy cosmetics) to join the marketing business run by Bill’s colleague, and rumoured lover, to follow them to the island. There she meets former high school acquaintance Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths).
There are films which made such an impact that many people mistakenly think that they are their makers’ first features, when they aren’t. Muriel’s Wedding is a case in point. It was writer-director P.J. Hogan’s second feature, following one short and television work – and one earlier feature. Almost no one saw The Humpty Dumpty Man, and many people, myself included, still haven’t. It bypassed cinemas and went straight to video and television (in 1989, three years after it was made) and was never released in the UK. But then he was billed as Paul Hogan (sometimes as Paul J. Hogan), no doubt changing his byline to avoid being mistaken for Crocodile Dundee.
The film has the word wedding in its title, and the opening scene shows Muriel catching the bride’s bouquet, foretelling that she will get married soon. But what follows is not your standard romantic comedy. There is a wedding in the film, but the film’s romance – platonic or not, you decide – is elsewhere. It’s certainly a comedy but a much darker and blacker one than you might expect, with a cast of grotesques surrounding our central duo. It delves into some uncomfortable areas, beginning with Muriel’s social exclusion. Watching the film again, I was struck by just how dark it does get in places, and how much the plot is driven by sympathetic characters acting in ways that border on criminality. Yet Muriel’s Wedding works as much as it did back in 1994 (April 1995 in the UK, which is when I first saw it) and the downbeat stuff enhances a feel-good ending. To reference a not-dissimilarly titled British film made the same year, you don’t get your wedding(s) without a funeral as well. And so it is here.
If the film brought Hogan to worldwide attention, it did the same for its two lead actresses. This was Rachel Griffiths’s big-screen debut, though she had acted on television before. Toni Collette put on forty pounds to play Muriel. Four years younger than Griffiths, she had made one previous film. It’s not true that she had passed unnoticed in that, as she had had an Australian Film Institute (AFI) Best Supporting nomination, but not that many people saw Spotswood (also known as The Efficiency Expert). However, both went on to build considerable careers both at home and internationally, though Griffiths has lately been seen most often on television. She had a notable, and commercially successful, first feature film as director, Ride Like a Girl, released in 2019. Their karaoke duet, sung to Abba, while dressed like Frida and Agnetha, is a highlight. Barry Crocker (Barry McKenzie himself, and also singer of the Neighbours theme) makes a brief appearance as himself.
Surrounding them is a fine supporting cast. Bill Hunter nails the role of Muriel’s neglectful and low-level-corrupt father, keen to see himself as the Aussie battler he isn’t. As Muriel’s mother, Jeanie Drynan is heartbreaking in a scene where she instructs Collette not to look at her as she walks past. It’s all in the face, with no dialogue. Also making her big-screen debut was Sophie Lee, playing the bitchy none-too-bright queen bee to the hilt. Hunter notwithstanding, it’s very much a film about its women, though Matt Day and Chris Haywood make an impression in smaller roles. Martin McGrath’s cinematography keeps the film bright and colourful.
Muriel’s Wedding opened in Australia on 29 September 1994, seven months later in the UK. Out of eleven nominations at the AFI Awards, it won Best Film, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress for Collette and Griffiths respectively and Best Sound. Hunter and Drynan were nominated for their supporting roles, as was Hogan for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director. The film was BAFTA-nominated for its screenplay and Collette received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy, but the film was ignored by Oscar voters. In 2017 Muriel’s Wedding became a stage musical. P.J. Hogan has directed five cinema and two television features since, but Muriel’s Wedding may well be the best film he has made. A quarter-century later, it is as bracing and as funny as it ever was.
Muriel’s Wedding is released on Amazon Prime August 31 and on digital August 3.