The plot: Social misfit Muriel Heslop can do no right, and stealing money from her father to fund a luxury holiday is the last straw. But what if she could change her name and start again in Sydney? There she could get a job, live and party with her wild friend Rhonda, and even realise her dream of getting married. Amazingly, ‘Mariel’ gets her big day: but the consequences of her dishonesty, and what it does to her family, can’t be avoided forever.
Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette) is an embarrassment. Unemployed, overweight and light-fingered, she can’t even attend a friend’s wedding without being arrested for shoplifting. Not that she really has friends, since she is shunned by the skinny blonde wretches in Porpoise Spit who fill their days by getting at poor Muriel and knocking off each others’ partners. Things are no better at home, where Muriel lives with her equally useless siblings and baffled mother Betty (Jeanie Drynan), all of them facing the constant, disappointed sniping of patriarch and semi-failed politician Bill (Bill Hunter), a local councillor courting foreigners for (not exactly ethical) investment and beautician Deidre Chambers (Gennie Nevinson) on the sly.
Taking advantage of her mother’s confusion, Muriel escapes with a clutch of blank cheques to the luxurious Hibiscus Island, where she meets up with her ‘friends’ and another old schoolmate, geek turned pleasure-seeker Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths); although the theft of her father’s money causes a scandal, for Muriel it’s worth it as she gains a best friend to build a new life with in Sydney. Muriel (slightly) changes her name to Mariel and begins to enjoy herself, living out her long dreamt-of fantasy of getting married by touring the city’s bridal wear shops. Rhonda’s world comes crashing down when she is diagnosed with cancer and confined to a wheelchair, and although ‘Mariel’ promises to stand by her, the lure of a real wedding is too strong when apartheid threatens the gold medal chances of South African swimmer David van Arckle (Daniel Lapaine). Mariel becomes a willing bride and something of a celebrity, which brings her former bullies swarming round; her happiness is short-lived, however, as the realities of a loveless marriage and the effects of her actions on Rhonda and her own mother begin to hit home.
Australian cinema has never been noted for its subtlety and the surface details of Muriel’s Wedding – the broad sex talk, the unabashed awfulness of Heslop family life – will do little to change that view. However, beneath the broad, bluff promise of a coarse, knockabout comedy lies a film that is funny but also meaningful, and often surprisingly tough. You have every right to expect a film filled with ABBA songs to be as camp as hell, but writer/director Hogan repeatedly shuns Baz Luhrmann-type flamboyance in favour of darker material: fabulous though Muriel’s conceits are, they are fabulous in a literal sense and reality, sooner or later, catches up. It’s not a particularly profound message, admittedly, but Muriel’s Wedding effectively shows that sooner or later you have to take responsibility for your actions.
Still, the film would no doubt have remained a little-known curiosity if it were not for the incredible central performance of Toni Collette. Collette’s Muriel is in part about the surface: fleshy (De Niro-style, she gained 40 lbs for the role), feckless and not too bright. Underneath, however, she and Hogan’s nuanced script combine to compelling and often heart-breaking effect as she battles with her own demons about being ‘nothing’. That Muriel is physically comical whilst retaining a deep emotional vulnerability is testament to the actresses’ significant talents, and her mostly-stellar Hollywood career has been fully deserved. Fellow American success story Griffiths is excellent too as second fiddle Rhonda (she’s also put through the emotional wringer), while there’s also strong support from Hunter and Drynan as Muriel’s dysfunctional parents. Throughout, the script balances the comic and the tragic to great effect, and I know of no other film where a married couple tell each other ‘I don’t love you’ and still has the audience rooting for them both.
If Muriel’s Wedding has a weakness, it’s that the story asks the viewer to fill in gaps and take a lot on trust as it skips between episodes: Muriel suddenly turns up in Sydney, with a job; and her marriage to David is as contrived as it is arranged. However, this should be balanced against the fact that the film is psychologically utterly convincing. Bill Heslop, losing a state governorship election by an unbearably narrow margin, blames his family for the defeat and constantly tells them how rubbish they are. Believing him, Muriel and the rest live down to his expectations, and Muriel comes to the conclusion that the only way to stop being a failure is to stop being Muriel Heslop. Unfortunately, she discovers that it’s no easier being Mariel van Arckle, especially if it means abandoning her one real friend.
Muriel’s Wedding is a refreshingly female-oriented film that comes to life not only in the slap and tickle of its hilariously bawdy scenes or in the bitchy digs between its characters, but in a thousand little details: the awkward gait of Mariel’s bridesmaids as they sashay up the aisle to I do, I do, I do, I do, I do; the disdainful looks of the wedding guests; the blushing bride waiting at the threshold, only for the groom to stride obliviously into the flat; or the paucity of imagination or conviction in Mariel’s name change: she can be anyone she wants to be, and she changes one letter? If you’re expecting a raucous or fluffily romantic comedy, you may well be a little disappointed by Muriel’s Wedding, but if you connect with Muriel – and with Collette’s acting, how could you not? – you will find it a funny, sad and profoundly satisfying movie.