For fifteen weeks during 1994, ‘Love is All Around’ by Wet Wet Wet, a cover version of a track previously recorded by The Troggs, was the number one song in the UK, back when the Sunday music chart was a big deal. The last time a song had held the number one spot for so long had been only three years previously in 1991 when the Bryan Adams song ‘(Everything I Do) I Do it for You’ from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves stayed at the top spot for sixteen weeks, both songs indicating the power that a good movie theme song had during the period.
You couldn’t get away from the Wet Wet Wet song, with some radio stations effectively deciding to stop playing it because of perceived audience apathy and even the band themselves questioning who was still buying it after so long. The fact that it was on the cusp of beating Bryan Adams’ duration said a lot about the popularity and pulling power that Four Weddings and a Funeral had as the 90s was about to hit its mid-way point.
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Like so many films from the romantic comedy genre, Four Weddings marks a point when you can see a star is being born. Like Pretty Woman and Julia Roberts, or When Harry Met Sally and Meg Ryan, Four Weddings and a Funeral is the moment where we said a hearty hello to Hugh Grant. It wasn’t as if he was a major star discovery here, though. He’d been around for a while, not least sharing the screen with fellow Four Weddings cast member Kristen Scott Thomas in Roman Polanski’s rather unpleasant Bitter Moon the year before, not to mention Ken Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm, and even being one of the leads of a Merchant/Ivory production, Maurice, but it was his performance here as Charles when he ascended to the top and became everyone’s favourite British romantic lead.
Like Roberts and Ryan, it’s hard to think that there was a time when we didn’t know who he was, his star ascending very quickly. In many respects, the film established a screen persona that would come to define him for a very long time, with his bumbling, charming unlucky-in-love persona (preposterous, since he looks like Hugh Grant) proving to be as sellable to international audiences as the lush costumes and restrained emotions of a Merchant/Ivory period drama. British tabloid culture being what it is, soon enough he was on the front pages of nearly every paper, his relationship with Elizabeth Hurley documented to an uncomfortable degree.
Yes, there was a small bout of legal trouble a year later when he was in the US to promote his next movie Nine Months, but it never dented his popularity or his career, and he would effectively become something of a star of the genre for a long period of time, not least eventually going on to star in another two films written by Four Weddings and a Funeral’s screenwriter Richard Curtis (Notting Hill and Love, Actually), and one other which the writer was amongst the contributors to (Bridget Jones’ Diary).
In some respects, the film gave the UK two new film exports. If Grant was the on-screen brand they could sell to an all-important US market, then its writer Richard Curtis was the behind-the-scenes equivalent. While Four Weddings and a Funeral was directed by Mike Newell, a successful director who went on to bring Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to the screen, it’s really Curtis that is the prominent behind-the-scenes name that we think of when the film is mentioned.
The past twenty-seven years have seen screenwriter Richard Curtis become one of the UK’s most popular screen storytellers. His work is frequently steeped in crowd-pleasing comedy and a sense of Britishness that makes it an easy product to sell internationally. That he has frequently worked with Grant and would populate his films with actors and actresses in fairy tale depictions of London and the UK makes his films easy to grasp for international audiences, and as such, any film that bears his name as a writer tends to do very well at the box office.
His movies are not the most realistic depiction of the UK, and they occupy a caucasian upper-middle-class UK that is not exactly reflective of how things really are (and is something that somewhat mars the otherwise lovely and brilliant Notting Hill), but they are, and continue to be (if the success of Yesterday is anything to go by) crowd-pleasing works that are hard to resist. He was predominantly more well known for his television work at this stage, not least Blackadder and Mr Bean, but he has always had a knack for combining big laughs with an emotional undercurrent that can sometimes be devastating, as evidenced by the final episode of Blackadder, which must surely rank as the most devastating and poignant ending to any comedy series ever produced for television.
On the surface, Four Weddings and a Funeral looks like a jolly good time about a group of friends and their complicated love lives as they go to various weddings, but the title puts you on edge that not everything is going to go well for them – and sure enough the film has an emotional sting in its second act. Structured around the four weddings and the funeral of the title, even more brilliant is just how foul-mouthed the whole thing is. The very first line of the film is the f-word and the characters frequently use the word as well as variations of terms related to sex in a joyous fashion.
Even more remarkable is that it’s a film that earns its 15/R rating. One of Curtis’ prior films before this was The Tall Guy, which features one of cinema’s all-time funniest sex scenes courtesy of Jeff Goldblum, Emma Thompson, and a piano, and similarly Four Weddings has a rowdy moment when Grant gets stuck in the honeymoon suite at the wrong time. It was this ability to combine poignancy, full-on comedy and witty foul-mouthed dialogue that made the film such a fresh one at the time. Yes, there are issues to be had with Andie McDowell’s performance, who appears to be cast in order to sell the film to the US, which it ended up doing, but more so because it was a genuinely great film rather than anything to do with her presence. The casting choices for American talent in order to have a film like this appeal to American audiences would work better with both Notting Hill and Love, Actually, both of which benefitted from the none more brilliant casting choices of Julia Roberts (effectively playing herself) in the former and Laura Linney in the latter.
While Curtis has become famous for a certain type of glossy, near fantasy portrayal of the UK and romance and love within it, there is a bite to Four Weddings that perhaps his later films lack. The eventual death of Simon Callow’s Gareth and the moment his boyfriend Matthew reads ‘Funeral Blues’ by W.H Auden, and with it, the moment that similarly turned John Hannah into a star is heartrending and contextualises the drama into something deeper. Curtis’ film is about life, love and friendship, and unfortunately visiting the church as often as you do to celebrate life must also mean we must mourn death. It gives what otherwise might have been an easy-to-sell rom-com considerable dramatic weight.
While the film became heavily marketed over the star discovery of Grant, it was really more an ensemble piece and everyone in it gets their moment to shine. Even more groundbreakingly, here was a mainstream romantic comedy that had a gay couple as part of the ensemble. Representations of LGBTQ+ relationships were unfortunately not that common in mainstream films at the time, although changes were being made not least with the release of Philadelphia the year before, and while there are some issues to be had here (we never see Gareth or Simon kiss for instance), the film is never afraid or shy of acknowledging that they are the only two of the main ensemble to be in a committed relationship, and that marks the film as something of a quiet game-changer in some respects. Yes, one of the gay characters is part of the funeral side of the title, but the film also allows Matthew to find new love as evidenced by the final photomontage that ends the film.
As for Curtis and Grant, they would become major voices for the romantic comedy genre, whether they liked it or not, and when Curtis made his directorial debut with the cinematic Marmite that is Love, Actually, not only did he cast Grant in a lead role, he also had the film do a Christmas rendition of a very popular song.
That song? ‘Love is All Around’ of course.