WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: Handsome bumbler Charles meets Carrie, the woman of his dreams, at a friend’s wedding and spends the night with her. However, at a subsequent wedding he discovers she has a fiancé, making him grateful for the support of his close, if eccentric, friends when Carrie’s ceremony comes round. Deciding he should tie the knot himself, Charles desperately chooses a bride; but there will be more interventions than the tragic one suggested by the title.
Charles (Hugh Grant) is a walking disaster area. Not only is he perpetually late for weddings, including the (first) one where he’s best man to Angus and Laura, but when he gets there he has forgotten the rings and makes a series of faux pas with the guests, much to the amusement of his deaf brother David (David Bower) and friends: larger than life bon viveur Gareth (Simon Callow) and his ‘close friend’ Matthew (John Hannah), flighty flatmate Scarlett (Charlotte Coleman), posh but affable landowner Tom (James Fleet) and his Sloaney sister Fiona (Kristin Scott-Thomas). Charles’ eye is taken by American guest Carrie (Andie MacDowell) and – after a few interruptions – the pair share a night of passion; but whilst Charles is smitten, Carrie has a real life to get back to, one that includes politician Hamish (Corin Redgrave) as her fiancé as Charles discovers at the wedding of unlikely couple Bernard and Lydia (David Haig and Sophie Thompson).
At this wedding, Charles also meets up with former girlfriend Henrietta (Anna Chancellor), known by his friends as ‘Duckface’, but he manages to escape with Carrie when she returns to the hotel alone. The next month, Charles and his friends receive an invitation to Carrie and Hamish’s wedding, an event which proves both dramatic and tragic, and causes Charles – for better or worse – to make a life-changing commitment.
It’s curious that a film whose popularity single-handedly reinvigorated the British film industry (and ruined the pop charts for most of 1994) focuses on so narrow a band of people, none of whom do an honest day’s work in their lives – the working title Toffs on Heat summed up the situation pretty accurately. You might think that the troupe of nice, white, smart upper-middle or plain upper-class friends would turn off a large portion of the British audience, but it is the unabashed Englishness of Richard Curtis’ script that gives the film its posh charm. Unlikely though it may seem, Charles and his friends are no doubt spot-on observations of Curtis’ own friends, and these observations provide the film with a lot of very funny situations, boosted by generous performances such as Callow’s or the fleeting appearance of Rowan Atkinson as a stumbling trainee priest.
In the reading of W.H. Auden’s Funeral Blues, John Hannah is also very good and provides the film with an iconic moment that provides a profound low to contrast with the film’s otherwise frothy and superficial highs. Essentially, though, this is Grant’s film. Four Weddings propelled him to superstar status in an instant, and little wonder: despite his easily-parodied blinking and stumbling mannerisms, his Charles is cute but vulnerable, investing a huge amount of feeling when the joke’s over; and the film’s concentration on him (by contrast with the scattershot approach of Love Actually) is rewarded as the viewer roots for him to be happy, rather than giving up his life in a marriage of convenience (though the film’s insistence that the event is ‘for the rest of his life’ is undermined by frequent references to divorce). Grant has been accused of being a one-trick pony, but this is largely because the film industry only wants him to perform one trick: and it has to be said, he does it very well.
Watching the film for the umpteenth time, it becomes clear that the amount of time spent on Charles has a knock-on effect: some of his friends are actually very quickly-sketched characters. Fiona and Duckface, for example, have very little to define them and it is only thanks to the skill and nuance of Scott-Thomas and Chancellor that these women appear at all credible. It is in this light that Andie MacDowell’s much-maligned performance should be seen. Yes, she’s stiff, not credible as a real person, and doesn’t reciprocate the emotion that Grant gives out; but her whole style is at odds with that of the British actors on show; and even someone like, let’s say Julia Roberts, might have struggled with the role, since Carrie is really a poorly-written character. Is the audience truly meant to sympathise with someone who has had 33 sexual partners and continues to cheat on her fiancé, even going as far as marrying him when the relationship is obviously loveless?
As for the infamous delivery of the line “Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed,” whilst it does sound as though MacDowell is reading it off Grant’s forehead for an eye examination, it’s not all her fault. If you think about it, the line is so corny – she’s standing out in the rain, sopping wet, everyone would notice no matter how intense the conversation – that I doubt any actress could invest it with the emotion it’s supposed to carry. Bad acting? A little. Iffy writing? Definitely.
MacDowell’s lukewarm performance is a very minor consideration in a film which is otherwise filled with warmth and friendship, love and song, and an utterly engaging turn from Grant in the central role. Four Weddings and a Funeral may well simply show the party-filled antics of toffs on heat, but it does so with such good humour that you come to like them nonetheless. More impressively still, the film still works its odd magic after fifteen years – and umpteen viewings.