A romance film where the romance is incidental.
I watched Four Weddings and a Funeral for the first time relatively recently. I was expecting another Notting Hill–and indeed, there are parallels and similarities, in that Richard Curtis directs while Hugh Grant attempts to win the affections of a seemingly-out-of-his-league American, accompanied by a zany, tight-knit group of friends. Four Weddings, however, is a different film entirely, and quickly became one of my favourites.
Four Weddings stands apart from the usual romcom genre in my mind for many reasons–not least because the romance that the film ostensibly follows is one of the least interesting aspects. It seems almost cliched now to reject Charles and Carrie’s central love story. After all, in the era of “hot takes”, it’s become mainstream to wilfully misunderstand popular media. And Andie McDowell has long been the subject of no small amount of ridicule.
Regardless, I’m going to play along. Because, frankly, Fiona, Gareth, Matthew, Tom, and the rest of the colourful cast of characters offer far more lasting interest than the mystique of the flighty American.
Four Weddings has the feeling of a montage; a collection of moments, more than a necessarily linear plot. It’s a surprisingly unconventional move for a film that does, in other ways, hit many traditional rom-com beats. With the exception of a scene in the middle of the film, during which Charles attempts to find a wedding present for Carrie only to bump into her, the rest of the runtime is split into clearcut events: the titular weddings and funeral. Thus, we never truly see the characters in ordinary circumstances. Anything we learn of their outside lives is essentially incidental, as though the purpose of their presence is to act as part of a dynamic, rather than being fully drawn. And, amongst the core group, that dynamic is wonderful–sarcastic, mocking, snarky, yet so warm and loving, as familiar friendships so often are. The emotional depth of the titular funeral only blossoms due to our implicit understanding of just how close these friends are.
It’s a slightly odd film, undoubtedly, with a quintessentially British sense of humour: dry, self-effacing. It never dwells too long on its own jokes. And it has a pervasive sense of melancholy that you can’t quite escape. Despite most of the runtime taking place at the “happiest days of one’s life”, no one but the first two happy couples seems to enjoy themselves all that much.
No one encapsulates this melancholy quite like Kristin Scott Thomas’ Fiona. Snarky and patrician, she’s almost aspirational at the start of the film (if not relatable–she and her brother Tom belong to the seventh-richest family in Britain). Her storyline is poignant–the glamorous, icy best friend, quietly resigned to slowly fall out of unrequited love with the clueless Charles. Or at least slowly let herself get over it.
And said clueless Charles is simply wonderful too, with Hugh Grant firmly establishing his comedic ‘brand’ of floppy-haired, bumbling, slightly hopeless-in-love characters. Charles serves as the anchorpoint for the film’s humorous approach to romance, and the overall blending of funny and sad. Grant elevates text that is sometimes bland on the page (I’ve read the screenplay), infusing emotional vulnerability that makes Charles’ love-at-first sight for Carrie endearing.
In essence, Four Weddings is wryly funny, melancholy, repressed; and all the more deeply, deeply British for it. Allegedly, no one knew it would be a success. Scott Thomas didn’t think it was funny, and the film was so plagued by budget issues that the extras playing guests were in fact the aristocratic friends of the crew, wearing their own wedding garb.
Well, jokes on them. The film was, at the time of its release, the highest grossing British film ever. W.H Auden’s Funeral Blues sold 257,000 copies. And I’m writing about it almost thirty years later. Its unique tone and stellar performances stand out to me, especially in the sea of early ‘90s rom-coms.
I’ll finish with a thank you to Fiona, for making heartbreak classy. And for your outfit to the third wedding. I have to give some credit to the women of Sex and the City for their first season “Witches of Eastwick” wedding garb, but Fiona will serve as my enduring justification for wearing black on happy occasions.