4 Weddings / 1 Funeral

by maxmosher

Before he was romantic comedy’s automatic leading man, matched with a never-ending parade of marketable mates through process of spinning game-show wheel (‘And the next one will be… Sandra Bullock!’ DING DING DING!), Hugh Grant was an unknown actor who starred in a small British production named Four Weddings and a Funeral. And, although it went on to become the most successful English movie at the time and launched him into floppy-haired stardom, it is far from the traditional romantic comedy many remember it to be.

While the tribulations of the central couple, bumbling Charles (Grant) and beautiful Carrie (Andie MacDowell, while she still made movies rather than just L’Oreal ads), progresses in the recognizable boy-meets-loves-loses-and-gets-girl trajectory, that romantic relationship is secondary. Carrie, who lives in America and only seems to visit England to randomly attend weddings in big hats, is only a fleeting premise, whose motivations are never really understood by the viewer.

The relationship that is the real centre of the film is that of Charles and his band of misfit friends; glamourous Fiona (Kristen Scott Thomas, in perhaps her best role); her aristocratic brother Tom (James Fleet), who’s thought to be stupid but is actually wise; henna-haired pseudo-punk Scarlet (Charlotte Coleman), who is inexplicably Charles’s platonic flatmate; and gregarious gay couple Matthew (John Hannah, with a Scotch brood which has to be heard to be believed) and Gareth (Simon Callow), a bearded Bacchus-like hedonist.

How this group became friends is never explained, and that makes it all the more believable: the movie simply presents a group of friends, and the viewer takes them at face value.

Beyond shifting the focus from the traditional boy-girl romantic dichotomy, the group also houses a myriad of alternative relationships and love stories, gradually drawn out throughout the film.  

Unexpectedly, for a movie structured around four weddings, which these characters are supposedly invited to all the time, what links the members of the group is the various ways they attempt to hijack and subvert the proceedings. Scarlet discusses her dating problems to seven-year old flower girls, and explains that bonking is like table-tennis “but with smaller balls”; Gareth gets drunk, dances highland flings, cheers on awkward toasts, lies to dumb Americans (“Do you actually know Oscar Wilde?”) and theorizes that the one reason couples get married is to have something to talk about for the rest of their lives.

My favourite line is the exchange between these two, when Gareth compliments Scarlet’s clashingly-coloured ensemble: “Scarlotta! Fabulous dress. The ecclesiastical purple and the pagan orange symbolizing the mystical symbiosis in marriage between the heathen and Christian traditions?” To which she replies, with perfect working-class dead pan, “That’s right.” 

Fiona, in contrast, always wears black and habitually introduces inappropriate discussions. She compares performing a wedding ceremony for the first time to sex with uncomfortable vicar-in-training Rowan Atkinson (“Only not as messy, and far less cause for condoms”) and, when an old lady asks her if she’s a lesbian (“Well, it is one of the possibilities for unmarried girls nowadays, and it’s rather more interesting than saying, ‘Oh dear, never met the right chap,’ eh?”) she describes herself as being a lesbian once in school, for about fifteen minutes.

She goes on to explain that she has in fact met the right chap, but she doesn’t love her back, and no will compare until she gets over him. She’s talking about Charles, who for most of the movie is completely oblivious to her feelings, until she admits them to him in a heart-breaking, incredibly-acted scene. Fiona offers no explanation for her deep feelings for the childish Charles, and Charles can offer none in return for why he doesn’t feel the same way about this beautiful and witty woman, who he clearly adores as a friend. These are the messy realities of love, rarely acknowledged in movies.

The one with the most idealistic ideas about marriage is Matthew, who is the only one to have found his love but ironically the only one not allowed to wed. The group of friends, stuck on the idea that they are united in their un-married status, don’t actually think about Matthew and Gareth as a couple until two thirds of the way through the movie.

“It’s odd, isn’t it?” Charles muses to Tom. “All these years we’ve been single and proud of it and never noticed that two of us were, in effect, married all the time.” A revolutionary line in 1994.

The hapless Tom, who makes a habit of proposing to all his female friends, presents another subversive relationship concept when he then explains to Charles that he never expected a “thunder-bolt”: “I always just hoped that, that I’d meet some nice friendly girl, like the look of her, hope the look of me didn’t make her physically sick, then pop the question and settle down and be happy. It worked for my parents. Well, apart from the divorce and all that.” Only in a movie which already presented so many alternative relationships would this description of a traditional, unexciting but stable romance stand out as subversive to the norm.

Stephen Fry’s Peter’s Friends, a sort of British The Big Chill from a few years earlier, had also featured a group of friends at its centre along with different types of relationships and a ground-breaking gay subplot (in its case, the lead character disclosing his HIV positive status), but what separates Four Weddings and a Funeral as particularly transgressive is its incorporation of alternative ways of loving into a conventional romantic comedy. What, after all, is more traditional than an English wedding?