Hope meets despair in wedding farce
Supported by an excellent cast, Melbourne writer-director P.J. Hogan performs a daring and entertaining balancing act with his second feature, “Muriel’s Wedding”. It is a comedy about despair as well as hope, failure as well as success. And it makes feminist points while siding with its old-fashioned heroine, a young woman who wants a husband as proof to herself and the world that she is a sex object who amounts to something. “Muriel’s Wedding” which moves to the beat of Abba hits from the 1970s, also has a garish, surreal exuberance that invites comparisons with “Strictly Ballroom” and “The Adventurn of Priscilla – Queen of the Desert”. But it has a compassionate blackness that sets it apart from them and recalls Jane Campion’s first feature “Sweetie” (1989). Hogan’s own first feature, a spy thriller “The Humpty-Dumpty Man” (1986) did not get a cinema release.
Muriel (Toni Collette) is 22, the oldest of five children. She is plain, fat and unemployed and lives in the NSW North Coast resort town of Porpoise Spit, where her father, Bill (Bill Hunter), uses his position as shire presidint to make money in crooked property deals, while his wife, Betty (Jeanie Drynan), deludes herself that her life is not a hell of boredom, frustration and a disappointment. Spurned by her friends, derided by her father, Muriel is an ugly duckling who dreams that bridal plumage will turn her into a swan. She twice risks jail in an unsuccessful attempt to make the dream come true, then escapes to Sydney with an adventurous, promiscuous soul mate, Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths). She spends most of her spare time trying on gowns and veils in wedding-wear shops and compiling an album of photographs of herself as the bride who never was. Then this lumpish maiden’s prayers seem about to be answered. She is also given a last chance to be honest with herself.
The script is strong and simple, but embellished with well-placed visual and double-take verbal humor. “He’s been charged with raping a Japanese tourist.” – “He’d never do that. He hates the Japanese…”) Hogan directs in a bright, sketchy. almost comic-strip style. Yet his outstanding achievement, the quality that sets “Muriel’s Wedding” apart from the current crop of Australian comedies and comedy-dramas, is his use of tragic incidents to darken the lightness. They are woven into the film without incongruity or any suggestion that they are gratuitous shocks. They give the comic-strip the rich texture of reality. Hogan falters a few times. Some oral-sex jokes are gratuitous. A plot point about Australian citizenship is poorly explained, and towards the end there is a feeling of anti-climax that tighter control by the director might have avoided. But “Muriel’s Wedding” is one of the two outstanding Australian films released so far this year (the other is “Bad Boy Nubby”). It is a notably well-acted ensemble piece in which Hunter’s fine performance — we simultaneously despise and pity the crass character he plays — is matched by far less experienced members of the cast. Collette, who made her mark as another Plain Jane in “Spotswood” (1991), is delightful and astonishing as Muriel, changing her face, with the character’s changing fortunes, from sulky slobbishness to shining beauty. Griffiths, as Rhonda, also shows a vivid command of moods, from brassiness to battered pride, and Drynan is quietly alarming as the zonked-out Betty. The film’s other virtues include Terry Ryan’s costumes, which reflect the ways the characters set themselves and are seen by others.