EMPIRE ESSAY: Four Weddings and a Funeral Review

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The title says it all, really.


In the modern fairy tale realm of Four Weddings And A Funeral the charming prince is an archetypal English, upper middle-class twitterer who struggles with himself to overcome his fears of intimacy and commitment and babbles his now classic, stammering declaration of love:
"Um, look. Sorry, sorry.... I, I just wondered... I really feel... in short, to recap in a slightly clearer version, uh, in the words of David Cassidy, in fact, um, while he was still with The Partridge Family, uh, 'I Think I Love You', and uh, I, I just wondered whether by any chance you wouldn't like to... uh... uh... um. No, no, no. Of course not. I'm an idiot. He's not. Excellent, excellent, fantastic, uh, I was going to say lovely to see you. Sorry to disturb. Better get on. Fuck!"

At a time when British films with a hope of succeeding internationally were almost exclusively handsome period pieces, along came writer Richard Curtis' abundantly entertaining and engaging contemporary romantic comedy. Director Mike Newell's films had met with mixed fortunes, although his 1992 period romance Enchanted April, made for TV, had tickled U.S. critics and become a surprise arthouse hit in America. TV comedy veteran (Blackadder) Curtis had already made a pleasing transition into feature film with the quirky The Tall Guy (1989). Still, Four Weddings was a production of modest ambition and expectations, with the cast accordingly contracted at humble British scale (about £65,000 in Hugh Grant's case).

But standing out in a good ensemble turned out to be a career rocket launcher for Grant, Kristin Scott Thomas (Fiona) and John Hannah (as Matthew, with his show-stopping turn at the funeral reciting W.H. Auden's Funeral Blues: "stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone..."). Four Weddings And A Funeral became the then top-grossing British film of all time, and the one a subsequent wave of British comedies aspired to equal. It also set forth the winning formula for Curtis' line of romcom: a sophisticated but boyish, bemused, self-mocking Grant, an American leading lady for the market place, a group of vulnerable, endearing chums who are witty, weird and/or wacky, and a romance fraught with mistiming and misunderstanding.

Wedding Number One, Angus and Laura's in Somerset, is introductory. Charles is late and has forgotten the rings but gives a great Best Man speech and is struck by the thunderbolt they call love when he sees Carrie, who engineers their one-nighter despite his diffidence.

The plot thickens at Wedding Number Two, Bernard and Lydia's in London. Charles is late but is outdone in the gaffe department by Rowan Atkinson's vicar, whose dismal recital of the vows ("...to be my awful wedded wife") injects a spot of Beanishness, and in the Best Man stakes by the excruciating effort of James Fleet's Tom ("I congratulated him because all his other girlfriends had been such complete dogs, although may I say how delighted we are to see so many of them here this evening!"). Charles is busy being harassed by more than half of the women he's slept with, discovering his dream girl has become engaged, and getting trapped in the bedroom where the newlyweds are going at it.

One month later Charles runs into Carrie for the film's sole non-ceremonial social encounter, long enough to gasp out the justly famous David Cassidy citing highlight. Another month on Charles obviously is late for Carrie's rites, but not for those attending Gareth's demise, an occasion devised to provide a pause from hilarity for reflection and wit gathering. A leap of ten months takes us to what really comprises a set of three and a half weddings and a funeral; the reason for making a feature of Charles's brother David (David Bower) being deaf emerging in the outstanding jest of the, "speak now or forever hold your peace" sequence conducted in sign language.

Four Weddings is comedy that knits together superior sitcom sketches. So blithely is it unencumbered by backstory or reason it doesn't bear reality checks even on first viewing but still draws you in. How did this cross-generational set, from the soignee, acerbic Fiona to Simon Callow's flamboyant, professorial Gareth and Charlotte Coleman's younger, overstated kook Scarlett, become inseparable? How can an old buddy not know that Tom's manor is the size of Blenheim Palace? Does anybody have a job? Does nobody have parents? Why would Carrie marry the pompous politician Hamish (Corin Redgrave) at all, and why invite all these people she scarcely knows to her wedding? Who can make sense of the last conversation in the rain? And on repeated viewing we're not at all sure we wouldn't have been happier if it had been the long-suffering Fiona to land Charlie, after all. (But then we couldn't have the huge laugh at Fifi's fate in the end credits wedding pictures.) It is a tribute to Newell's crisp direction and the cast's delightful performances that this good-natured jape transcends its blatant contrivance to cajole and continually amuse.

Impossible to dislike, with bucketloads of charm.