Part one of Australia Week!
Muriel’s Wedding is the sort of movie that I watched when I was far too young to understand it. Last time I saw it I probably appreciated it more (I remember giving a good case for it in an English class), but that probably counts for nothing because I didn’t remember it.
Muriel’s Wedding was the breakout role for Toni Collette, and it chronicles her escape from a suburban hellhole populated by shrill harpies led by Sophie Lee.
It came out at around the same time as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and all foreigners who dared watch both of these films became convinced that Australia was obsessed with ABBA. What they may also have noticed is that while Muriel’s Wedding is promoted a comedy, and is quite funny, it’s also horribly depressing.
We can still do that with works like Kath & Kim (more funny than depressing, but still too true for comfort), but our industry has become in recent years largely bland and formulaic. Or so one would have to assume; no one actually goes to seem them. When our films of the last decade have been good, though, they’ve been excellent.
Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette) catches the bouquet at Sophie Lee’s wedding and is told by her friends to give it back because she’s never going to get married. After being dropped by her friends, who think that she’s “bringing them down”, Muriel’s father (Bill Hunter) informs her that she is nothing.
Muriel steals $3,000 from her family and escapes to Bali, where she meets her high school classmate Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths). Upon arriving home, she leaves once more to start anew in Sydney, the “City of Brides”. (I have never heard of our fair city being described as such, so I have to assume that it’s the aspiration of a girl from Porpoise Spit that characterises it as such).
Essentially it’s the story of a girl who everyone has pegged as a loser, who begins to lie to herself and to others to convince everyone that it simply isn’t so. The film simply wouldn’t work without the inclusion of Rhonda, because Muriel would have no one to encourage her to be herself. Muriel lives in a world of such aspiration that to be anything less than what others expect you to be is a suffocation. You have to get by on lies but, more importantly, no one should recognise the lies for what they are.
ABBA is an island in the sea of depression and hopelessness of Muriel’s life. The scene where Muriel and Rhonda lipsynch on stage is a moment of unbridled joy. The costumes, the hair, the music and cinematography combine to form a perfect homage to a band and a state of mind where nothing else matters.
The triumph of Muriel is that ABBA no longer matters to her because, as she tells Rhonda, “Since I moved to Sydney with you, I haven’t listened to one ABBA song. That’s because my life is as good as an ABBA song.”
Muriel has a dip thereafter, but it is necessary to dispel the ultimate fakery of equivocation. Terrible things happen to Muriel and the people around her on this journey, but ultimately the message is positive.
At nine years old, I didn’t understand the finer points of lipstick on genitals or of living a life that appears perfect to the outside world and being content with it simply because other people think you’ve got it all. I understand these finer points now and, while I always worry about the representation of Australia in a way many Americans probably don’t when they see their own country on film, I think that most audiences will be able to see past the mole mentality espoused by Sophie Lee.