In 1995, Toni Collette took to the screen as the ABBA-obsessed, unlucky in love, portly slacker, Muriel, who strings up a whirlwind of lies to fulfil her deepest fantasies. The film was a total hit back then, adored by viewers and critics alike but even 26 years on, the Aussie dramedy remains a cultural masterpiece.
PJ Hogan’s quirky indie feature is an utter charm-fest from beginning to end; it is comedic, heartfelt and harrowing all at once, but what makes this movie stand out is simply how authentic it is. At first glance, Muriel’s Wedding may seem like a typical rom-com when really, it’s a tale of acceptance, female friendships, societal stigmas and the austerities of life. The protagonist also doesn’t complete the classic leading lady image; instead, Muriel (Collette) stands with her ‘flaws’ unapologetically on display for the whole world to see.
Muriel is an ‘ugly duckling’ ostracised by her socially adept, vanity obsessed friends and overbearing, oppressive father. Muriel allows the impractical perceptions of perfect to overshadow her eccentric personality; trying everything she possibly can to fit in with her peers, Muriel finds herself unable to appreciate who she truly is. Yet, it is her quirky, oddball, unconventional nature that makes her so appealing in the first place.
The phrase “you’re terrible, Muriel” is uttered throughout the film to emphasise the burden that is Muriel Heslop, when in fact, she is far from being terrible – nor is she useless (which her dad seems to have drilled into the heads of his children). Muriel falls into the same trap that so many people have by allowing the idea of faultlessness to overshadow what really matters.
Instead, Muriel is influenced by patriarchal misogyny and exaggerated beauty standards – her dad is only ever moderately proud of her when she makes her dream a reality. Muriel feels she can only be worthy when she finds a husband regardless of whether it’s real – even queen bee, Tania, is willing to forgo her husband’s adultery if it means living the stereotypical suburban life.
All that Tania and her carbon-copy minions critique is everything audiences love about Muriel. She is far more likeable and seems like a complete hoot to be around whereas her materialistic friends are grating, hypocritical crowd-pleasers; they are bland and lack any of the charming qualities that Muriel naturally oozes – which she fails to acknowledge after being dismissed once too often. It’s a sad yet realistic take on a protagonist as she doesn’t realise how unique she is and spirals down a dreary path to become exactly like everyone else.
Muriel becomes so infatuated with erasing any remnants of her life (changing her name, leaving her hometown, creating fictional lovers) and flees to Sydney with her new BFF Rhonda – who encourages Muriel and values the friendship they’ve formed. Their bond is heartwarming to watch unfold and depicts the mutual respect they share, with this being the first positive friendship in Muriel’s life.
Rhonda is a progressive image for feminism with her matter-of-fact attitude and openness to casual relationships whilst grounding Muriel and reminding her of her worth. If there ever were a moral compass in the film, it’d be Rhonda as she is the one who ultimately proves to be Muriel’s reality check and draws her attention back on what truly matters.
Though not short of comedic moments, Muriel’s Wedding holds a strong poignant message on the power of platonic relationships and conformities, entailing a devastating reality that too many people experience. It is not the materialism or romantic entanglements that pull us through, it’s usually the friendships we are surrounded by and Muriel’s Wedding drives this point home with Muriel and Rhonda.