Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Charles And His Screwball Friends

Some links before I get to anything else. Norma had another passage from Sam's Story. She also had a musing on disaster films and scenarios, and had questions at her wordpress blog. Eve had some musings.  Shelly noted things to celebrate. And the Whisk had this unlikely food combination at her blog (maybe it's an American thing).

Now then, today I have a film review....

"I seem to be stuck in the wedding from hell, ghosts of girlfriends past at every turn. Next thing I'll bump into Henrietta and the nightmare will be complete." ~ Charles

"A toast, before we go into battle. True love. In whatever shape or form it may come. May we all in our dotage be proud to say I was adored once too." ~ Gareth

"I'd have had to marry your friends, and I'm not sure I could take Fiona." ~ Henrietta
"Fiona loves you." ~ Charles
"Fiona calls me Duckface." ~ Henrietta

"The great advantage of having a reputation for being stupid: people are less suspicious of you." ~ Tom

"Dear Lord, forgive me for what I am about to, ah, say in this magnificent house of worship. Bugger! Bugger! Bugger, bugger, bugger, bugger!" ~ Charles

Years ago, British writer Richard Curtis asked himself how many weddings he had been to over the years. That was the genesis for his screenplay when he realized the answer. Four Weddings And A Funeral was the film that developed from the idea, directed by Mike Newell (Enchanted April, Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire). It tells the story of a relationship framed over four weddings (and one funeral) with the nuances of British life, old friends, romance, life, and death playing out over the course of the movie. Made for a relatively small budget, the film made a tremendous amount of money worldwide, caught on with audiences beyond cultural lines, and even scored a nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars.

We first meet Charles (Hugh Grant) sleeping in on a Saturday at home when he's supposed to be getting ready for a wedding. It seems a common thing for Charles and his housemate Scarlett (Charlotte Coleman) to sleep through alarm clocks. Their friends Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas), Tom (James Fleet), Matthew (John Hannah), Gareth (Simon Cowell), and Charles' brother David (David Bower) have no such problem, however, and are waiting at the church when Charles and Scarlett scramble in late, for Charles to take his duties as best man at the first wedding.  

He meets Carrie (Andie MacDowell) at the reception, and there's a spark between them, even after he's committed a faux pas in a conversation with an old friend that happens to make his old friend wonder just how faithful his wife has been. The two spend the night together, parting ways in the morning, but they're fated to keep crossing paths at weddings (which Charles keeps being late getting to). And Charles keeps getting himself into socially awkward situations along the way, while his family and friends keep finding amusement in his dilemmas (such as the wedding from hell, with ghosts of girlfriends past). 

Newell shot the film in London and around various spots around Britain, including churches, manor houses and castles, and it shows in the details, all of which feels very British and quite luxurious. We're looking at the lifestyles of the upper class (though we're never quite sure what most of these people do for a living), but it's not in a way that makes one think of Masterpiece Theatre. That's because the story grounds itself in a rich, delightful sense of humour and strong, deep characterization. Curtis' screenplay plays itself out mostly through the five ceremonies of the title (with the odd bit of veering off here and there). It deals with universal things we can all relate to about weddings- best man speeches, mistakes during a ceremony, what on earth to say in congratulations to the happy couple, and adds in a healthy dose of cinematic pratfalls for its protagonists that we can laugh at. 

While a number of women remark on how cute Charles is (it must be the cheekbones), it's true that the character is also written to be socially awkward, and this is where the screenplay's humour is at its richest. Whether it is Charles being stuck at a table with a number of his former girlfriends, meeting an ex who can cry at a moment's notice, or being stuck in a room while the bride and groom have their way with each other in a very loud way, Charles has a gift for finding himself in situations of socially awkward magnificence, with the look of a man who's wondering what hole might be deep enough to hide in for a few years. The humour also shows itself in the dialogue among the characters, which is both funny, and very, very smart. It's the kind of humour that I like- intelligent, doesn't lower the expectations of the audience. We might have ourselves a novice minister (Rowan Atkinson) spectacularly messing up wedding vows (and leaving the audience in stitches). Or we might find ourselves musing on what Scarlett thinks of the idea of working at a place that sells rubber clothing for people with eclectic personal tastes.  

The story also emphasizes strong characterization, the other element that makes it work so well. It's most obviously there in this circle of friends. These are people who have known each other for years. They know each other well, get along with each other (though not always, sibling relations can be a bit volatile at times), but always have each other's backs. You get the sense that these people are family of their own choosing, and because of how well the characters are developed, we get to warm up to each of them. And when one of them becomes the subject of the aforementioned funeral, we see the sense of loss among the rest, because we're feeling the loss too. That's the testament to how well the movie works: we become so invested in the characters. 

Newell's crew did outstanding work in their various capacities. It starts with the camerawork, which tends to capture Britain at its best- churches lean towards feeling light and airy and dignified inside, vibrant, just as you expect from a wedding, and the scenes are shot in that manner. At the same time, the funeral service has a drab, downcast manner, and is shot in that fashion that fits the mood. Aside from the sheer amount of set detail- flowers at weddings, props you'd expect at weddings, and the like- the other big crew task is in the clothing, and that's something I wouldn't usually make note of, but it is noticeable here. The wedding dresses at each wedding differ, but fit the mood of each bride. Scarlett's off beat eccentric way of dressing perfectly fits an unorthodox character. Fiona's gradual shift from wearing black at weddings to finally wearing colours still fits the character, who's elegant and refined. Perhaps most closely tied to character are the waistcoats Gareth wears to weddings, brightly coloured and boisterous, just like the man himself. Charles, on the other hand, tends to look like he just rolled out of bed, even if he is wearing a tuxedo, and that's a good touch for the character and a mark of careful attention to detail by the crew.

The cast is the other great strength of the film. Rowan Atkinson, the great British comedian who gave us Mr. Bean and Blackadder, is hilarious as the flustered clergyman in his cameo. Anna Chancellor turns up in a complicated role as Henrietta, Charles' ex-girlfriend who he runs into at the wedding from hell. She's not meant to be likable- she's clingy and difficult in nature, and yet I like what Anna does with the character. She makes her compelling to watch, even if Charles' friends call her Duckface. Robyn McCaffrey turns up as Serena in the first wedding. She finds herself interested in the deaf David when she sees him, introduces herself later on at another wedding, trying to show what she's learned of sign language (and getting words wrong). There's a good chemistry between the two characters, and she brings a breeziness to the role.

Charlotte Coleman plays Scarlett as the eccentric carefree character she is, seemingly a bit flighty and yet with depth that shows itself, particularly in her grief during the funeral. She's unconventional, but we also see someone who's loyal to her friends. David Bower as it turns out actually is deaf, and plays Charles' brother with a charm and graciousness. He gets some great lines along the way (subtitled, mind you) and proves to be the catalyzing force late in the film for Charles to make a vital decision. Even as he appeals with reason, he can't quite help but add some humour to it, and Bower brings that across. James Fleet gets to play Tom as the wealthy man with a reputation for being slow witted (this certainly comes across when he's the best man at the second wedding and flubs his speech). Still, in a way there's some wisdom to him- he points out late in the film something that's indisputable. We like him as much as we've gotten to like other cast members.

John Hannah went onto other films after this, including Sliding Doors and The Mummy series. Here he plays Matthew with a wry sensibility, a bit quiet perhaps, but with the sense that he's smiling at a private joke. He's a true friend to those in his life, offering counsel when needed. We particularly feel for him when he is subjected in the strongest way to grief, and this is the role that got Hannah notice beyond British shores. It's a great part, in a film filled with great parts. He's one half of a believable couple with Gareth, played by Simon Cowell. It's a same sex relationship that feels very grounded- Ian McKellan later said the film did far better for the advancement of acceptance than Philadelphia, and that does show itself in how the audience just likes the two men. They're a normal couple- well close enough, anyway; Gareth is slightly bonkers. Callow makes the most of his role as Gareth, a boisterous larger than life fellow who has an amazing zest for life (Scottish dancing does the poor fellow in). He inhabits the role with such presence, and we like him a lot. Both Gareth and Matthew are immensely loyal to their friends, and so when death comes calling, we feel the loss of it. Kristin Scott Thomas is marvelous as Fiona, so elegant and refined. She holds much to herself, including her feelings for one of her friends (though she sometimes shares with strangers). Even if she initially comes across as a bit icy, she has some great lines before we start seeing more beneath the surface, someone who loves deeply and feels greatly. 

The leads are perfectly cast. Andie MacDowell spends much of the film interacting primarily with Grant. Carrie is like a breath of fresh air, a likable character who brings out the flustered qualities in her counterpart. She's smart, flirtatious, and sweet, but also brings empathy as a person, and that comes across in MacDowell's performance. It's perhaps that we tend to like her as an actress that we like the character- in the hands of a different actress we might find something lacking in the character, but perhaps not. The writing for her is still so solid.

Grant established himself in the role and became a star as Charles. He showed a gift for comedic timing and a skill for letting himself play a character ending up in very awkward situations. His Charles seems to be stumbling and improvising his way through his personal life, with a bit of a track record for not being very discreet in his former relationships; Henrietta calls him a serial monogamist who goes through relationships convincing himself he must never get married. Grant plays him as a bit nervous, even stammering on occasion, but we get to like Charles a whole lot. He and MacDowell had great chemistry together as their characters, and it really shows in how much the audience comes to like them together.

Four Weddings And A Funeral rightly established itself as a classic romantic comedy. It's grounded in such strong characterization and very smart comedy, taking its leading man through situations that feel awful and yet we can't help but laugh at. It's a love story, but at the same time a testament to real friendship, with characters that feel genuine and have depth. It is a film guaranteed to make me smile and laugh every time I see it.

Just not during the funeral.  


  1. What a fine reviewer you are, especially because I agree with you!

  2. Brilliant review William and I absolutely agree, brilliant cast and very clever script.. this is definitely on my list of favourites.

  3. You are the only man I know who will go anywhere near a chick flick without the promise of getting laid afterward (or maybe you did, I don't know!).

    You're also the only man I know who'll read Jane Austen....

  4. You do have a knack for writing superb reviews! I normally wouldn't read a movie review, but you know how to do it. And now, I'm going to go back and watch this movie again!

  5. Love the movie, but can't stand Andie MadcDowell in this. "Stop the clocks" gets me every time.
    Have you seen 'Keeping Mum' also with KS Thomas and R Atkinson? A gentle comedy you might like.
    Jane x

  6. @Petrea: thank you!

    @Grace: mine too!

    @Norma: it depends on the chick flick. Bridget Jones will send me running for cover.

    @Lowell: thanks!

    @Jane and Chris: I will have to look that film up.

  7. If I tell you I haven't seen this, will you really be surprised? ;)

  8. One of my favorite movies !

    cheers, parsnip

  9. This is a movie I sort of accidentally watched and was delighted to find it a funny, cheerful, endearing experience.

    Great review, William.

  10. Good movie!

    Personally, I had hoped Charles would end up with Fiona. Much as I like Andie MacDowell, I didn't like the character she played.

  11. Thought I commented on this. Great review and I remember enjoying this movie when it first came out. Hugh Grant always makes me laugh--even when he's serious.

  12. I don't recall what the reason was I didn't care to go and see this film, but wasn't this shortly before or after Hugh Grant's little faux pas with the prostitute?

    Sounds like it might be a fun oldie to check out.

  13. @Kelly: I would not be surprised!

    @Parsnip: you have good taste!

    @Lynn: thank you!

    @Cheryl: I can see that. Charles and Fiona would have been good together.

    @Eve: he has a gift for both.

    @Nas: thanks!

    @Diane: that particular incident happened some years later.


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