As sure as water dampens and fire burns, rom-com lovers will turn on Four Weddings and a Funeral every Valentines Day. The Mike Newell film, which turns twenty-five this year, stars Hugh Grant at his most affable, and Andie MacDowell at her Andie-MacDowell-iest. The pair provides a vehicle by which moviegoers grow to understand the enduring strength of love across time and many, many social complications. Hulu recently remade the movie by expanding the two-hour story into a multi-episode series and introducing a whole new cast of characters, so let’s look at what made the original version so applicable to past and modern moviegoers.
The 1994 film centers around a group of friends living in metropolitan England: Charlie, his brother David, Scarlett, Tom and Fiona. The pals ordinarily float about the same social circles, looking for love in all the wrong places, and assuage their collective anxiety over dying alone with twee Britishisms. Charlie then meets Carrie, an American socialite, at the top of the movie and spends the rest of it chasing her – sometimes literally.
The original’s plot feels as though it took its beats from almost every love story, in which a central couple struggles through a challenging set of circumstances, only to reunite in the end. Cultures across the world have created their own versions of this tale, from Hindu stories about reincarnated couples fighting to find each other after each rebirth to Shakespearean classics like The Tempest, Much Ado About Nothing, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The universality of falling in love and the human impulse to root for the underdogs make these stories relatable across eras and continents, even if the underdogs tend to hobnob with kings and millionaires.
In Four Weddings and a Funeral, the prohibitive circumstances that screenwriter Richard Curtis concocts spring from the central couple trying to navigate social mores surrounding relationships: whether to let love bloom or die when a third person tries to whisk one of them away. Whether spending so much time together keeps a flame burning that could never grow into anything more. Man and woman meet, man and woman feel external pressure to get involved with other people, man and woman rekindle their love for one another in the end. Sprinkle some mischievous fairies and political Elizabethan allegory in there, and you’d have exact facsimiles of the conundrum into which the Bard tended to dunk his play’s leads.
Given the (almost painful) predictability of each character’s progress through the tortuous journey to true love, one might call Four Weddings and a Funeral’s cast a set of archetypes. Here lies a connection between this film and another genre of theatre that gained popularity just after Shakespeare’s time: commedia dell’arte, a theatrical movement that swept through the hamlets of Italy and France from the 16th century to the 18th century. To enthrall audiences with tales of courtly love and bumbling elites, playwrights of the commedia dell’arte utilized a cast of characters well-known to the genre’s enthusiasts.
The zanni (wily servants), the Maidservant, the Lovers and the Braggart frequently made appearances in this genre. John Hannah’s Matthew resembles a zanni: always aloof and knowledgeable, one of only two characters of the clutch of English young people to have cracked the secret to finding lasting love. Scarlett, played by Charlotte Coleman, serves as a mod and edgy update to the slightly crass, sensible-adjacent Maidservant. Charlie and Carrie play the Lovers, and Gareth plays the blustery, boom-voiced Braggart.
To help them navigate the Scyllas of two weddings and the Charybdis of…another wedding, Gareth – Curtis’ version of Puck – plies the single and single-but-searching characters with alcohol and observations on the futility and utility of the institution of marriage. Played by Simon Callow, Gareth engages in the revelry of the first three of the titular festivities with the gusto of a slightly more philosophical Brian Blessed. But his facetiousness isn’t just the result of his frequent inebriation.
Discussing the role of Gareth and Matthew, the film’s only gay couple, in Four Weddings requires an examination of the social context of mid-1990’s England in regards to LGBT relationships. For a significant amount of the movie’s run time, most characters consider Gareth and Matthew to have reached the peak of happiness simply because the two men found each other. Aside from Gareth’s death toward the end, the couple encounters neither highs nor lows. They do not evolve or deteriorate. They just exist, arcless and futureless. The expectation of marriage or further commitment after dating seems to fall only to the straight couples in the film. The straights are allowed a different path by which to reach the dizzying heights of relational bliss: date, get married, have babies. In fact, recently married couples corralling toddlers during long church services becomes a running gag in the film.
The straight characters assume that cohabitation is all that Gareth and Matthew will ever want out of their relationship. At one point, Carrie calls Matthew “lucky” for being able to avoid the bother of getting married, as if his inability to wed were an inherent superpower instead of a result of policies instituted by the British government. From this angle, Gareth’s bloviating appears to be a coping mechanism, one piece of a whole set of armor that insulates him from the stark reality that the state will never consider him a true husband.
It will be interesting to observe how 2019’s iteration of Four Weddings and a Funeral will update the genteel humor and memorable characters that made the original film a classic. Perhaps this new version will set the standard for romantic comedies in the future, just as the original did for genre films at the outset of the new millennium.