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MURIEL'S WEDDING

Australia, 1994 (MIFF 1994)

Director: P. J. Hogan

P. J. Hogan's breakthrough feature, coming to us directly from its World Premiere at Cannes, rockets another enormous local talent onto the world stage as it launches the 43rd edition of the Festival.

Growing up in a tacky coastal resort town (location undefined, but clearly within spitting distance of the Gold Coast in both geography and fashion sense) hasn't offered many options to twenty-year old Muriel (Toni Collette). Overweight and plain, she is the butt of her friend's jokes yet desperate for their acceptance. At home, Muriel's domineering father (Bill Hunter) regularly belittles her, a constant assault that has done nothing for her self-esteem. Muriel retreats into a fantasy world of Abba songs and wedding day dreams - a world which seems eons away from small town, small minded Porpoise Spit.

Clearly Muriel needs to get away but has neither the means or the courage until she meets the gutsy Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths), and the two head for the big city. In Sydney Muriel rapidly re-invents herself, lands a job and starts to live it up. Just when you think she's found her independence fate wraps its arms around her in the shape of hunky South African swim star David van Arkle, it seems that Muriel's wedding dreams have become a reality.

It's difficult to imagine Muriel's Wedding without the radiant presence of Toni Collette, who defines Muriel for us from the very first moment we see her catching a wedding bouquet, her face aglow with an absurd, ecstatic grin. Similarly, Bill Hunter nails the white-shoed battler Bill Heslop so clearly we can see the desperate, social-climbing asprirant behind the noisy, self-serving exterior; and Jeannie Drynan bravely takes up the role of Muriel's mother, Betty, who has succumbed long ago to her husband's litany of small tyrannies. Aided by a powerhouse performance from newcomer Rachel Griffiths, and hilariously bitchy contributions from Belinda Jarrett, Rosalind Hammond and especially Sophie Lee as Muriel's fickle girlfriends, Hogan shows a keen eye for social satire that makes Muriel's Wedding a truly, madly, deeply, Australian film.

Beneath the froth and bubble of its colouful, bouncy surface however, there's a strangely dark edge to the comedy. Muriel's happiness is always a little deluded; her family life a sad and sorry pit of disappointment that her fleeing can't repair; her wedding a sham. For the flip side of all these glittering dreams is a smouldering critique of class aspirations and family dysfunction. As Bill Heslop stands alone in the backyard not understanding why his wife burnt the lawn, we can't help but wonder if his generation ever will.

Muriel's Wedding does hold true to one glorious, romantic notion though: that life really could be as good as an Abba song; as good as Dancing Queen. The concept doesn't change, just Muriel's definition.

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