Features Australia

Not so terrible after all, Muriel

One of our greatest films celebrates its twentieth birthday

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

Quickly: what’s your favourite Australian film so far this year? Trick question, of course. You probably haven’t seen any.

As usual, Australia has released a few good films in the past few months, but nobody bothered to see them, leaving industry mavens scratching their heads. For example, These Final Hours had good reviews, so why was the box-office so dismal? Well… good as it was, it was a movie about the end of the world. Surely, only a few people go to the movies to be miserable. How about Predestination? Didn’t you hear how good it was? Sure, but what more could be said? The movie was a succession of plot twists. Explain the story in more than 20 words, and you’ve probably spoiled the whole thing.

But as we look at the current shape of the film industry (if not the films themselves), it’s time to ask another question: What is Australia’s greatest movie? Of “all time”, I mean. The greatest-ever.

It depends what you mean. Basically, there are two kinds of great film: the masterpieces (think “arthouse”, Fellini, Citizen Kane), adored by film buffs and critics, and the populist fare that finds its way into the zeitgeist. Some movies straddle both categories, of course, but most belong in one or the other.

So in the first category, our greatest film is probably Picnic at Hanging Rock. Or maybe Wake in Fright. You could debate this for days. But when we’re talking the second kind of great film, my choice as a former film critic (and no, I’m not sure what qualified me for that job) is clear.

Somehow, 1994 was a classic year for movies in that second category: Pulp Fiction, The Lion King, The Shawshank Redemption, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Forrest Gump, and those Australian comedies The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding, released within weeks of each other, in September 1994.

Cue the twentieth anniversary parties (or at least, the reflections from middle-aged film writers).

Between them, Priscilla and Muriel revived Abba and demonstrated Aussie kitsch in all its bright colours. Hence they were always cursed to be compared to each other, even though they had little else in common. These were the first two films I ever drove myself to the cinema to see. But while Priscilla was entertaining enough, the best part of the screening was the trailer for Muriel’s Wedding. Priscilla celebrated the vibrancy of gay culture, in the midst of an almost unnecessary plot, but Muriel’s Wedding was something else.

For the unacquainted, Muriel’s Wedding – released in Australia on September 29, 1994 – starred Toni Collette as a young, gaudy woman obsessed with a) Abba, b) getting married and c) being successful (which she feels she can achieve by getting married to the sound of Abba music).

Her story meant a lot to many young women, but it wasn’t gender-specific. Its writer-director, PJ Hogan, was a graduate of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. In his screenwriting lessons, he was presumably taught of the “hero’s journey”, Joseph W Campbell’s creed that has become the standard for Hollywood movies.

Most famously, George Lucas credited it for Star Wars, but it has also been the basis for most box-office hits of the past 30 years.

Muriel’s Wedding was certainly a box-office hit (even in the US, where it was tagged “arthouse”, presumably because it didn’t have any laser beams). Like Star Wars, it followed the hero’s journey conspicuously. But here’s the most interesting bit: it did so far more imaginatively than Star Wars. Yes, at the risk of offending my friends who regard Star Wars as the pinnacle of Hollywood genius, the script of Star Wars (unlike the costumes and special effects) wasn’t nearly as creative as Muriel’s Wedding.

Like most movie heroes, Luke Skywalker and Muriel Heslop both start their movies with a villain. Luke’s antagonist, rather unoriginally, is a scary figure in a black cloak who goes around murdering people. As with Luke, Muriel’s antagonist is her father (Bill Hunter), a gruff politician with a veneer of respectability, who never (directly) kills anyone. The lesser villains are led by Tania (Sophie Lee), the only major character who looks anything like a Hollywood leading lady. More surprises.

Then, as Campbell (and most screenwriting gurus) instruct, the heroes meet their “mentor” – the wise figure who leads them in the right direction. In Luke’s case, the mentor is Obi Wan Kenobi, who is – what else? – a wise, spiritual man in a cloak. How bleeding obvious can you get?! However, Muriel’s friend Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) is a young, irresponsible woman who doesn’t look after herself, and eventually suffers the consequences. Yes, folks, this is the mentor.

Of course, Muriel finds a man (though not the one of her dreams) and they marry, to the music of Abba. But this is not your typical romantic comedy. At its core, it’s an anti-romantic comedy. Muriel, after spending most of the film daydreaming about marriage (like most Hollywood heroines, except even more blatantly), realises that – lo and behold – it won’t magically solve her problems. She annuls her arranged marriage, even after making love to her new husband for the first time.

The closing scene, when (spoiler alert) she drives away with Rhonda, has been read by some people as a clearly lesbian scene. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” (to quote another nineties icon, Jerry Seinfeld), but I always thought that it was more about the glory of friendship. Like Gallipoli (Australia’s other “is this actually gay?” film), it is a story about two good buddies. In Muriel and Rhonda’s case, they spend much of the film chasing blokes, so their preferences are surely clear.

Muriel’s Wedding had more to say than almost any Hollywood romantic comedy. It probably has more to say than Picnic at Hanging Rock (which, in fairness, was so brilliant because it said very little). The point is that Muriel doesn’t find romance, but she finds contentment. Whatever Hollywood might tell you, that’s a much better deal.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Mark Juddery is a regular contributor.

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