• YEAR: 1994
  • DIRECTOR: Mike Newell
  • KEY ACTORS: Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell
  • CERTIFICATE: 15
  • IMBD SCORE: 7.0
  • ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 96%

SEX SCORE: 5/5

✔️ This movie is definitely rewatchable! Sadly, it’s not on TV as often as other Richard Curtis movies as I could watch it every day!

✔️ It’s difficult to know if this movie is the source of wedding dress fantasies or not, but this was certainly my first exposure to the idea of fucking while wearing a wedding dress.

✔️ And it does pass the Bechdel Test, but only just!! Apparently the only qualifying line between two named female characters is this one: Scarlett: Isn’t she beautiful? Fiona: Scarlett, you’re blind, she looks like a big meringue.

✔️ I contemplated this one for quite a long time but I have concluded that the cast are fuckable. None are at their hotness peak but they’re all looking pretty good!

✔️ And it is sex positive. The characters all fuck around and have a lot of sex and, while it may be greeted with humour and hilarity, the characters are never judged for it. And I like that!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (free with subscription), YouTube (from £6.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

Poster for Four Weddings and a Funeral

I’m back!! After writing a movie post every week for 41 weeks, I suddenly realised in mid-March that I was burning out. Work, toddler, house move, relationships; my time was full and I was finding that the self-imposed commitment of a weekly movie review was just too much, especially as I seem incapable of writing less than 2000 words per review… I’d intended on only having a break for a few weeks but then the coronavirus and lockdown hit and, well, more adjustments were needed. But watching movies has become even more important than ever as we look for an escape from our four walls. What else are we going to do with all our ‘free’ time? So I thought it was time to start again but it will be slightly different this time around.

For a start, you’re going to get to choose the movies that I write about! When each new review is posted, I will release a poll on Twitter with four choices for the next review. The poll will close on Sunday evening and I’ll aim to write the review over the next 10 days. This means the reviews are going to be published every two weeks rather than every week, and occasionally they may be late and I’m OK with that. It’s never been more clear than sometimes life gets in the way!

So where to start again after such a long break? It had to be the best British romcom ever made…

***

I was only 9 when Four Weddings and a Funeral was released but, even at that young age, I was aware of the buzz that surrounded it. From Wet, Wet, Wet’s persistently chart topping single to Elizabeth Hurley in that Versace dress, images of which still appear if you simply google ‘That Dress’, Four Weddings and a Funeral was everywhere.

And as I got older, it became clearer that Four Weddings and a Funeral was the beginning of something really important in British culture – it was the start of Cool Britannia! Three months after Four Weddings opened, Oasis released their first album; their infamous Brit Pop battle with Blur took place in 1995 and ‘in 1997, Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition confirmed the rising status of such [British] artists as Sam Taylor-Wood, Gillian Wearing and Tracey Emin.’ 1997 was also the year of Tony Blair’s landslide electoral win and the rise of New Labour confirmed the change in British culture – the grey Major and troubled Thatcher years were behind us. The Brits were back and we were Cool.

Personally, I think this period of prosperity and trendsetting did not last nearly as long as some – including Richard Curtis – would think. This is the third movie that I have reviewed that has involved Richard Curtis in some way and, as much as I love them, I fear it was all downhill from this first masterpiece. I ranted in December about how we can blame Love Actually for Brexit and I worry that my main complaints about the later Richard Curtis output (other than the misogyny – more on this later) is that they were trying to recapture the magic and excitement that they accidentally discovered with Four Weddings and a Funeral. Britannia isn’t cool anymore, at least not in the same way and, thankfully, Britain is much more diverse and interesting than a bunch of cis white posh people, but I’m not sure that Richard Curtis and those who try to recreate the past realise that.

An image from Four Weddings and a Funeral of Charles

But despite my reservations about how well this movie represents the reality of Britain, there is no doubt that it is a crazily British movie! Not because it’s full of famous landmarks or Union Jacks but because it tells the stories of a group of posh white people who swear and shag and live in castles. In other words, it’s Britain as the Americans imagine us – but it’s even better than that as we also get to enjoy ‘the illicit thrill of witnessing mild-mannered Brits behaving badly.’ Listening to some American movie podcasts, they also emphasised that there is something very British about all of the sex and bad language as this simply does not occur in American movies, let alone romcoms. Famously, such was the shock at the content that the Mormon town council walked out of the premiere at the Sundance Festival in Utah. Luckily, that inauspicious start didn’t hold it back and Four Weddings and a Funeral went on to become one of the most financially successful British comedies of all time.

Four Weddings and a Funeral simply tells the story of four weddings and a funeral and the group of friends who attend all of these social and life changing events. Charles (Grant) meets Carrie (MacDowell) at the first wedding and they have a one night stand before she leaves to go back to America. By the second wedding, Charles has decided he’s in love with her but, unfortunately, Carrie is now engaged – and the third wedding is hers. But their lives are shaken up when one of the group, Gareth (Simon Callow), dies. Carrie leaves Hamish but discovers her timing is off again as Charles has agreed to marry his ex-girlfriend, Henrietta. Discovering that Carrie is single again on his wedding day, Charles leaves Hen at the altar to not marry Carrie for the rest of their lives.

And it’s brilliant. It’s hilarious and oozing 90s style and full of characters that are instantly recognisable, even if we don’t share any of their privileges. And it is just so funny! I had forgotten how many one-liners or short jokes had me laughing out loud – sometimes in anticipation of a joke that hadn’t yet been told but that I remembered from previous watches:

‘Bride or groom?’

‘Young man, it should be obvious to you that I am neither!’

But despite its frankly hysterical exterior and surprisingly superficial setting, Four Weddings and a Funeral manages to strike some really quite profound notes.

As discussed by the BFI in their review of the film on its 25th anniversary, the presentation of the gay couple, Gareth and Matthew, may seem ‘frustratingly coy’ compared to what we’d expect today – they are never described as gay and the viewer is left to come to their own conclusions about the exact nature of their relationship – but at a time when ‘LGBTQ+ screen characters were invariably defined by their otherness,’ Gareth and Matthew were just another couple within the crowd and they received as little or as much attention as anyone else, except that they seemed to have the healthiest relationship on screen! Their sexuality was obvious but wasn’t a feature or a plot point, which is kind of extraordinary for the 1990s.

Image from Four weddings and a funeral of Matthew, Gareth and Carrie

Sadly, the film does undermine any notion of being truly progressive by killing off one of the gay characters. The ubiquity of the ‘bury your gays’ trope is a common complaint within LGBT cinema and I don’t think this can be dismissed just because Gareth doesn’t die of AIDS. The funeral, however, does allow Four Weddings and a Funeral to make the case for ‘marriage equality in a manner that unenlightened heterosexuals could easily grasp’ a decade before the 2004 Civil Partnership Act: ‘Gareth used to prefer funerals to weddings. He said it was easier to get enthusiastic about a ceremony one had an outside chance of eventually being involved in.’ Our wry laughter at his comment exposes the ridiculousness of the fact that this couple – this love and partnership, and this bereavement – weren’t allowed to marry and be legally recognised as a couple.

Because, my God, this funeral is devastating in its portrayal of grief. Bleak, industrial, grey, and filled with words that describe bereavement better than any I have heard before or since. I can’t read WH Auden’s poem ‘Funeral Blues’ without hearing it in John Hannah’s voice and without breaking out in goosebumps. The movie scene itself makes me cry out of context; it is heartbreak.

And it’s one of the wonderful aspects of Four Weddings and a Funeral that it can pair such grief with absurdity so successfully. Richard Curtis once said that he was ‘grateful that it was shot by Mike (Newell) in such a lively, gritty way. It’s a sketch movie, and he directed it as if it were a drama.’ Real life and real heartbreak float among islands of hilarity and they feel so much more poignant by comparison. Rowan Atkinson as the bumbling vicar is almost too much (it’s not; it’s perfect) and wouldn’t be out of place in a sketch show, but it works because the movie basically is a sketch show! With the exception of one scene when Charles is shopping for a wedding present and bumps into Carrie, each scene takes place at a wedding or funeral and offers no information about the characters’ lives or how they got there – literally and figuratively. We don’t know how they know each other, when they met, what their jobs are, what they do between weddings or what their relationships are like outside of these formal events.

I’m sure this is only because of my own white middle class British background but I do see myself in these people and could imagine my future in their futures. I’ve read reviews about how relatable the characters are despite their quintessentially upper class British nature but I’m not sure if that’s true – criticisms that there are ‘too many posh folk; not enough people of colour,’ are definitely valid but the fact that we aren’t told details about the characters’ lives means that we can superimpose ourselves onto them and we can see ourselves in their desires and mistakes.

Image from Four weddings and a funeral of Fiona and Charles

Which is why Fiona breaks my heart almost as much as Matthew’s grief. Her quiet devastation as Charles again falls in love with someone else who isn’t her is painfully familiar, as is her resignation that she can’t fall for anyone else while she’s still holding a torch for Charles. Having suffered through my own tragically protracted unrequited love affairs, I could see myself in her strained face as she tried to support him and I felt my own courage fail when she finally told Charles how she felt and he had nothing to say. I also recognised ‘the resigned loneliness when unrequited love, once declared, slips into friendship’ and so the fact that Fiona wasn’t given a proper happy ending still bothers me – the assumption that she ended up with Prince Charles is too ridiculous even for this film. I wish she’d been shown to have found her way out of love with Charles, rather than being left behind. When so many found their own happy endings, it makes me sad to see the one most familiar to me remaining alone.

So. On to Carrie. I can’t put it off any longer.

Most criticisms of Four Weddings and a Funeral honed in on Carrie and Andie MacDowell’s wooden performance as the love of Charles’s life. And it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that her line ‘it is raining, I hadn’t noticed’ nearly ruined the whole film – if it was a joke or parody, MacDowell sadly doesn’t have the comedy chops to carry it off. But I do have sympathy for her as MacDowell was never going to make this character likeable! She was fighting an unwinnable battle.

Carrie and Charles in the rain

In a movie that lives and dies on the implied relationships between characters and the glimpses at in-jokes, Carrie is purposefully separate. She’s an interloper, a foreigner, and not part of their clique; she’s different. Even the famous scene where she lists all the 33 people that she’s slept with acts to emphasise her otherness. While it is nice to reverse the traditional gendered roles of romantic comedies to place Charles as ‘the clumsy lovelorn protagonist while Carrie is the confident and sexually vociferous object of his affection,’ I disagree with some reviews that suggested that this was a positive step. Yes, it shows Carrie as a strong woman in charge of her sexuality and desire but I’d argue that we’re supposed to sympathise with Charles in the scene – we’re supposed to be overawed and shocked at her promiscuity, intimidated by her confidence and her Americanness.

Image from four weddings and a funeral of Charles and Carrie

It’s a trick that Richard Curtis used again in Notting Hill – casting his leading ladies as ‘outsiders who drop into [the leading man’s] life every now and then before flying back across the Atlantic.’ In both films, Grant’s character’s group of friends are his primary relationship and the girl flies in to disrupt everything with their assertiveness and then break his poor, weak British heart. To quote from the Guardian’s criticism of Richard Curtis’s notion of a romcom in 2013, ‘no wonder the first audiences of Four Weddings were reported to have howled their disapproval when Hugh Grant got together with Andie MacDowell. Why hadn’t he plumped for Kristin Scott Thomas, the eligible beauty he actually got on with?

But my major issue with Carrie is another one that Richard Curtis repeated in almost all of his movies – the women are essentially there to be enigmatic and beautiful and nothing more. They are objects, ‘visions of unattainable loveliness – until you attain them, that is. But there’s never any reason to get to know them.’ Four Weddings ‘fetishises Carrie as this kind of inherently unknowable creature. That makes it hard to believe that Charles’ love for her is anything other than infatuation, or to understand why she’s drawn to him at all.’ And for me, this makes Charles’s actions feel uncomfortably reckless.

Watching Four Weddings and a Funeral as a teenager and even into my 20s, it seemed unthinkably romantic to meet someone literally three times and fall madly in love with them. Now, in my 30s as Charles was during the film, I cannot understand it At All! No wonder Henrietta punched him in the face when Charles chose their actual wedding day to leave her for someone he has fucked twice and had one cup of coffee with. Who does that? How can you possibly know someone enough to love them after so little time? Particularly when he’s presumably had a real relationship with Hen for several months at least before deciding to marry her.

It’s another unfortunately misogynistic tendency of Richard Curtis’s movies that his male characters tend to treat women like shit but that’s all OK because it’s in the name of romance: ‘As long as a man benefits from such odious behaviour, it seems, we shouldn’t worry too much if a woman is the victim.’ We’re not supposed to get angry that Charles jilts Hen because we’re supposed to be rooting for him and Carrie; we’re not supposed to get angry in A Boat That Rocks when the heroes try to trick a women into sleeping with the wrong man when it’s dark as we’re supposed to be rooting for the young guy to lose his virginity; and we’re not supposed to rage about the fact that About Time is literally a movie about using time travel to manipulate women because it has a happy ending. Charles is the hero and his bumbling and flailing is why we love him, so his bumbling and flailing realisation that he doesn’t, ah, in fact, want to marry Hen because, well, he, um, seems, against all the odds, to, ah, love someone else who he thought, sadly, wasn’t available so he, um, well, settled for second best but, ah, it seems that, in the words of Robbie Williams, she’s the one, is supposed to be charming. Wanker.

And so I do feel for Andie MacDowell as I suspect that a lot of the criticism about her portrayal of Carrie comes from the fact that, deep down, we resent Carrie as a character. It’s easier to blame her for bewitching our hero and making him behave like a twat than to expect Charles, a man, to take responsibility for his actions. Such is the patriarchy. Oh, and while we’re there, let’s blame the (female) actor for doing a bad job rather than the (male) writer for writing a weak character: ‘It doesn’t feel like her performance is aiming for something and missing the mark. It’s just hard to imagine what the mark is even supposed to be for this strange, enigmatic woman.’ The BFI review was even more pointed in its criticism of Curtis’s writing about women, blaming him entirely for our bad opinion of Carrie. As he didn’t write her any personality or life outside of being enigmatic and beautiful, we simply can’t understand why she acts as she does: ‘with no sense of her perspective, we’re left with no choice but to judge her on the basis of her actions, which often seem fairly reprehensible.’ Because we just don’t know why she agreed to marry Hamish at all. Or what on Earth happened to cause their marriage to fall apart so quickly. Or even if she really likes Charles.

But none of this completely ruins the movie for me. It’s otherwise too perfect – hilarious, poignant, and it encapsulates early 90s Britain so wonderfully. And I haven’t really learned anything about sex and relationships from Charles and Carrie. In their own way, they’re both too annoying.

The friendship group

Instead, I learned from Gareth and Matthew, loving each other truly and honestly at a time when this would have still been an ongoing struggle to be accepted. I learned from Tom, never losing his faith that everything will be OK, and from Charle’s brother David, a notable example of a deaf actor playing a deaf character, who ‘seems the least stressed about his love life and finds romance the easiest.’ I learned a cautionary tale from Fiona’s unrequited heartbreak and sympathised with Scarlet’s dilemma as she fucked guys who didn’t love her and had to fend off guys who loved her but who she didn’t want. And I learned from Lydia and Bernard that sometimes the best sex of our lives can be found in surprising places!

These are real lessons in love. These are why Four Weddings and a Funeral is rightfully recognised as one of the greatest romcoms ever made…

NEXT TIME…

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.