‘You’re terrible, Muriel’

Over the weekend I watched the film ‘Muriel’s Wedding’.

I have seen this film  more times than any other – except for one – in my life. (The only film that I know for certain, that I have seen more often is ‘Heathers’).

I know that it’s the only movie I went to see three times in the cinema on its release, back in 1994/1995. Since then, I have owned a DVD of the film, which I watched repeatedly. It’s also one of those pictures that has become a modern classic, so it is still a regular feature on the television schedules.

The story is simple. Muriel Heslop (Charmingly described as ‘Stupid, fat and useless’ by her Dad) lives in Porpoise Spit, Australia. She is ‘friends’ with some poisonous local girls – ‘You need to find friends on YOUR level Muriel’ –  who have arranged a holiday to Hibiscus Island without her.

While out to dinner one evening with her family, (her Dad is played by Bill Hunter – an actor who seemingly had a part in every Australian film ever made. His character in this is a crooked, failed, former local politician – ‘You can’t stop progress’) they run into her father’s mistress Deirdre Chambers – ‘what a coincidence’ – who persuades Muriel to become a door to door make-up saleswoman. Muriel takes a blank cheque from her mother; defrauds her parents of $12,000, and runs off to join her vile friends on holiday. While on Hibiscus Island she meets Rhonda, a fellow misfit from high school, who confronts the other girls about their treatment of Muriel.

Upon returning home she finds out that her parents have discovered her theft. She flees from Porpoise Spit to Sydney, where she begins her new life. Sharing a flat with Rhonda she gets a job in a video store; invents a fantasy lover for herself.

And renames herself Mariel.

No longer frumpy, dumpy Muriel; Mariel can start living a life that’s finally as good as an ABBA song. ABBA is the band that plays the soundtrack to her life, encapsulating all the hopes and dreams and promise she sees for herself.

Unknown to Rhonda, Mariel has taken to visiting the bridal shops in Sydney, to try on wedding gowns, telling the assistants in these stores, big bags of lies to validate her fantasy about being loved and desired.

Tragedy strikes. Having just entered a marriage of convenience with a South African swimmer (to enable him to compete for Australia in the Olympics) Mariel finds herself back in Porpoise Spit.

It had been a few years since I last saw this film. In my memory this was a rip-roaring comedy, and feel-good film about an underdog who triumphs.

Memory can be deceptive. While there are certainly hilarious moments and lines (Some of which have become embedded in the English language – ‘You’re terrible Muriel’ and ‘Deirdre Chambers, what a coincidence’ being the most famous) it is in fact a desperately sad film. Muriel is a tragic figure – unloved, bullied, unhappy – who dreams of a better life for herself. Sadly she is a fantasist, and her ‘better’ life is built on sand. Reality encroaches on the fake life, and inevitably it all starts to crumble.

Toni Collette as Muriel gives an outstanding performance. She is simultaneously hilarious, delusional, corrupt, and heartbreaking. You root for her, even while you know that her terrible life decisions are doomed to failure. I think this may be my favourite ever performance by an actor in a film. She deserved all the awards, ever, for her portrayal of Muriel.

This classic film while savage in its criticism of how stifling provincial life is, and filled with flawed, believeable characters, is ultimately hopeful.

At the end, as Muriel yells ‘Goodbye Porpoise Spit’ when she returns to the city, I was wishing I was in the car with her.

Simply to support her in  holding it together.

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