By Annie Stevens
“You’re terrible Muriel.” I’m quite certain that my family is not the only Australian family to appropriate this line from PJ Hogan’s 1994 film, Muriel’s Wedding when one of us did something remotely scandalous. It’s up there with “Tell him he’s dreamin” (The Castle) in the Highly Quotable Lines from Australian Films stakes. Muriel’s Wedding is an overwhelmingly Australian film. Not just because it is set here and people say “G’day” on a regular basis. But that the characters, stereotypes, vocabulary, scenery and mannerisms are distinctly, true bluely, Australian. It could be embarrassing, but it isn’t in Muriel’s Wedding. Without the stereotypes, the dagginess, the Australian Ugliness as scathing architect Robin Boyd said of Australian design, the film wouldn’t be the same, and frankly, I don’t think I would like it nearly as much.
Muriel Heslop (the incomparable Toni Collette) lives in the small (fictional) hometown of Porpoise Spit. This isn’t just a place that I recognise; it’s a way of thinking too. There are plenty of cultural studies references and themes of identity that you can hang off it. But it’s more than that. Muriel’s Wedding is an ugly duckling story that most of us can relate to. I know I do. Like Muriel Heslop I have been shy and awkward. I’ve punched myself in the guts with self-loathing and left a bruise. I’ve wanted, desperately, to be liked. And like Muriel I wanted to escape, she from Porpoise Spit and me from my small town in Tasmania. We both wanted to be a success and to prove everybody, well, something. In the film Muriel wants to get married. Marriage is winning in a small town. I get that. As Muriel says in big hacking snotty sobs in the bridal shop, where Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) catches her trying on wedding dresses, if someone wants to marry her she won’t be Muriel Heslop any more. “Because who’d want to marry me?” she asks, sneering angrily at herself; the recognition of that feeling is like being thumped in the chest.
In many ways Muriel’s Wedding is about winning, losing and the real price, and worth, of both. Muriel did get what she wanted. She got married (to the bodacious swimming champion who needed a visa). She’d made it. But then marriage turned out to not be the ultimate prize after all. Getting what you want isn’t guaranteed to make you happy. Happiness isn’t something that you can buy. Love comes with consequences.
There’s also something in the film about salvation, and starting a new life. Not in a happy-clappy kind of way, but in a way that feels real and recognisable. Muriel lies and she steals, and while I have not stolen anything of consequence (though I am chronically guilty of borrowing colleagues’ pens and never returning them) I’ve certainly fibbed – to make myself sound better, to get out of trouble, harmless “white lies” that just about always end up catching you out. Muriel decides that she has to stop lying in order to be happy. Proof really, that you can better yourself and it’s almost never too late to make a new start.
At the beginning of the film Muriel Heslop is incredibly far from being happy “in her own skin.” She listens to Abba music as an alternative to her dull existence and an antidote to her self-loathing. The entrance of the blunt, confident and sexy Rhonda Epinstalk (the similarly incomparable Rachel Griffiths) into her life, Muriel’s name change to “Mariel” and Mariel and Rhonda’s subsequent adventure to Sydney makes her life, as she tells Rhonda, “as good as an Abba song.”
I really love the female friendship that is at the focus of the film. Whether or not you are a loner, or have noisily slurped the last of your orgasm cocktail while you wait for the it girls to tell you if you’ve made it in or not, the friendship between misfits Muriel and Rhonda is a really great example of friendship on screen. Finding a friend who knows everything about you, one that you can go through bad stuff with, and who loves you even when you’ve let them down, is something that can’t be over valued Plus, as the film attests, you can choose your friends but you certainly can’t choose your family. So it’s worth picking good ones.
“I’m not alone. I’m with Muriel,” says Rhonda after telling mean girl Tanya (incidentally, Sophie Lee as Tanya screeching, “I’m a bride!” on the Hibiscus Island trip is another of my favourite moments in the film) all about her husband – Chook – and his lipstick ringed indiscretions. From then on we’re all with Muriel.
Muriel’s Wedding is a sad film, spiked with moments of unfettered joy. Betty (Jeanie Drynan), Muriel’s mother, is treated terribly by her husband, taken advantage of by her children and is slipping away quietly without anybody bothering to take notice until it’s too late. Muriel and her siblings are told constantly by their self-aggrandising father (Bill Hunter) that they’re useless. Small, but deadly, humiliations – many of them inflicted by that ghastly horn- rimmed glasses wearing shop assistant/spy – are common. But then there’s Muriel, her thighs straining against her white sateen pantsuit singing Waterloo with Rhonda in the talent competition on Hibiscus Island. There’s Rhonda and Muriel drinking their prize-winning magnum of champagne, and talking about being famous and seeing the world. There’s Muriel screaming with laughter when the two naked but gentlemanly American sailors appear in her lounge room the night that she brings home a boy that likes her, a raucous moment shattered when Rhonda can no longer feel her legs. For all its sadness and its disappointments and its missed moments and punctured dreams, I don’t find it a depressing film. It never fails to make me cry. But I’m not sure whether I’m crying because I’m happy or because I’m sad or because I’m both. Mostly, I think, because I can relate. In the scene where Rhonda and Muriel are hanging out of their taxi yelling goodbye to the streets, shopping centres and tourists of their hometown I can just about taste their freedom and their feckless exuberance for life.
AFI Awards note: Muriel’s Wedding won four AFI Awards in 1994: Best Achievement in Sound (David Lee, Glenn Newnham, Livia Ruzic, Roger Savage); Best Actress in a Lead Role (Toni Collette); Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Rachel Griffiths); and Best Film (producers Lynda House and Jocelyn Moorhouse).
Annie Stevens is a journalist. She has written for The Age, The Vine, The Guardian Comment is Free, Kill Your Darlings literary magazine and OK! magazine among others. Until recently she wrote the arts and events listings for The Age. She just moved to Sydney, “City of Brides” from Melbourne. She doesn’t think the coffee in Sydney is nearly as bad as Melbourne people say.
Much of Annie’s freelance work can be found here.
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