It’s why this film has stood the test of time, so layered that it continues to reward repeated viewings; and it’s why a full-scale musical reboot, reimagined in the modern day by the film’s original writer-director PJ Hogan, has been mounted by the Sydney Theatre company – a testament to the story’s enduring appeal.
Describing the film in its simplest terms, our hero Muriel is hurting badly and is healed by platonic love. She is trapped on so many levels – in an abusive home, a regional backwater, a toxic social environment – and she valiantly seizes her opportunities to escape, slightly illegal though they may be.
She steals money from her father, a bully whose entire career has been built on corruption and graft. She also takes a big chunk of change for agreeing to a sham marriage, so that a ruthless competitor can circumvent Olympic rules and win gold. And yes, she lies and schemes and believes in nonsense so she can keep breathing and cope with all the abuse she gets, from inside her family and out. I don’t actually think Muriel is terrible, if I’m honest. I think she’s a rad bitch (pretty much my highest compliment).
From the very first scene, Muriel is utterly endearing and obviously, ironically, so much cooler than anyone else there – if only she could see it. Clad in head-to-toe leopard print, with red lips and nails, and rocking a tight mini on a big bod, Muriel clearly needs to ditch the losers of this town and spread her wings.
But the movie does such a great job of showing us how out of place she is, how totally the rules of Porpoise Spit prohibit her weirdness, her spunk, her very existence. From that moment, we are on her side, and we see that she’s adorable, funny, goofy and kind, not “stupid, fat and useless”. Unlike Tania and her gang, we want to be friends with Muriel – even if she doesn’t listen to the Baby Animals.Muriel’s Wedding is also a furiously feminist movie. The main character goes on a few journeys towards empowerment: forging a friendship with someone who values and respects her; letting go of the crutch of fictional marriages and Abba therapy; standing up to her abusive father and deciding that living on the harbour with a handsome rich guy who likes “having her around” isn’t enough.
Muriel’s passage to womanhood is about realising which friendships are true and which ones stink, and tragically, about seeing that her mum must have been young and beautiful and hopeful once too – and that she cannot allow herself to meet the same fate.
Lots of little moments resonate with me as a feminist observer: Rhonda is totally and unapologetically sex-positive, and when her casual sex partners think a guy is taking advantage of Muriel they intervene on her behalf. Brice is an example of gentle, respectful and warm masculinity, while David is positively influenced in this direction by Muriel.
Undoubtedly, patriarchy is the decisive factor in creating Muriel’s reprehensible dad, in the behaviour of her hapless siblings, in the power differential between her mother and father, and even in the despicable Deirdre Chambers: just a sad woman in a bad man’s world. Bill Heslop exemplifies a particularly Australian strain of toxic masculinity. He’s macho, corrupt, racist, cruel to his children and wholly abusive to his poor wife. The most likeable he ever gets is when he’s grudgingly impressed by Muriel giving him the what for before she leaves.
How would you classify Muriel’s Wedding? The “romantic comedy” genre is one I love and respect, but it’s a little inadequate to describe a movie as rich and complex as this. After all, how many romcoms result in the heroine rejecting the once-pined-for love interest and deciding instead that the most important person in her life is her female best friend?
No, Muriel’s Wedding isn’t a frisky romcom; or a dramedy that’s equal parts hilarious and harrowing; or a moving account of female friendship. It’s not just an artefact of a time when Aussie indies were charming the world with “quirky” tales of “oddballs” and “weirdos”, or an adorably kitsch snapshot of Australiana. It’s all this and more: a searing document of Australian life referencing the injuries of gender, class, disability, abuse, corruption and the regional divid
In the end, Muriel and Rhonda rescue themselves and each other – and it’s so much sweeter than anything a boring Prince Charming stock character could’ve produced.
Genuine joy is a currency we need to spend right now as we face this dark time of reckoning, with each new day bringing more proof that women have good reason to be at least circumspect about the men in their lives.
When the going gets tough, the tough find other women, and Muriel’s Wedding is a reminder that our female friendships are so often what pull us through. Because you’re never alone; you’re with Muriel.