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Monday is St George's Day, which is England's national day. So I thought for this week's movie pick we'd choose something English - and in recent decades, cinema-wise, the dominant school of English film-making was essentially the work of one man: Richard Curtis. Emma Freud was a comrade of mine on Ned Sherrin's "Loose Ends" for many years, and she was also Richard's sweetheart (as she still is). So he used to come meet her after the show on Saturday mornings. And my memory of post-show tipples in the ghastly BBC pub afterwards is that he strongly disliked musicals - although maybe he just disliked me boring on about them, as there were a lot of them about back then. But he had a fascination with big-time romantic comedies, and one morning I remember saying to him that romantic comedy is the only film genre that counts: if you can't do that, you haven't got a motion picture industry. Which isn't true now when it's just Sequel Man flying around battling Captain Franchise to save CGI Girl. But it was more or less true then, and Richard Curtis wound up inventing a British version of romantic comedy that, for a while, was every bit as boffo as Sleepless in Seattle and the other Hollywood stuff.
It wasn't formulaic at first, although it got so, fast. In 2003 my opening sentence ran thus:
Love Actually is crap actually.
I didn't think that was up there with Oscar Wilde, but I was giving a speech in Queensland a decade or so back and the introducer thereof quoted that line as evidence of my general wit and sagacity. Oh, well. Curtisland was brand new in 1994, and it's hard to recall now how big its debut was. I remember the American gals at the BBC New York office coming in swooning over Hugh Grant, and assuming it must be a totally different bloke from the Hugh Grant I'd met at some party the previous year and written off as just another London loser luvvie whose ship was never going to come in. Amazingly, it wasn't - and his soaraway success in America generated a level of pre-publicity back in his native land rarely seen before or since. Hugh Grant became Britain's most acclaimed actor on the basis of a long-running series of self-deprecating magazine profiles. His then girlfriend, Elizabeth Hurley, became a star just for dating him, and her dress became a big seller just by being worn by her to an awards ceremony, and even the distinctive flanking rows of safety pins that held it together saw a massive uptick in sales.
The hype was so stunningly spectacular it must have seemed a huge gamble to risk spoiling it by releasing the film. But nonetheless, in the fullness of time, after Four Weddings, a Funeral and a Massive Pre-Publicity Campaign came the long awaited sequel: Four Weddings and a Funeral: The Actual Movie. Eschewing the specialist shallows in which the then British film industry - the Kenneths Loach and Branagh and Merchant-Ivory - was content to paddle, Richard Curtis, screenwriter, and Mike Newell, director, waded out to join Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks and the Hollywood big boys.
Like Sleepless, Four Weddings starts with a standard. Unfortunately, it's from that well-known Gershwin interpreter, Elton John: "They're ratting sowngs uv luurv/But not for me." Well, maybe if you tried diction lessons, Elt. Sir Elton's ululations, an Englishman's misapprehension of American rock'n'roll vowel sounds, briefly raise the spectre of that saddest of British sub-genres: the Hollywood wannabee that doesn't quite get it right. But soon Hugh Grant's hairdo is tumbling out of bed, a best man late for a wedding in the country: "Oh, f**k! F**k!" runs the movie's first line. Then his flatmate, Charlotte Coleman, wakes up: "F**k!" goes the second line. Then his car won't start: "F**k!" "F**k it!" "F**k!" Then they try her car: "F**k f**ketty f**k!" Somewhere between the ".... it!" and the "f**ketty" the words "Written by Richard Curtis" appear on screen, and you wonder whether this picture really needs a writing credit. But Curtis is entitled to his little jest: Britain, critics used to say, makes filmed plays; Hollywood makes motion pictures. Yet, in Sleepless, almost every scene outstays its welcome because writer/director Nora Ephron is too attached to some smart line. By comparison, the first of the Four Weddings is an effortless eavesdrop in which five words from the receiving line or a stilted bop on the dance floor skewer with absolute precision the film's character and environment.
To be honest, I've always found English weddings with their peculiarly dull rituals a bit indistinguishable, memorable only for their mishaps. Making a virtue of conveyor belt homogeneity, Curtis and Newell refocus for each wedding — the first has a missing ring routine, the second a neophyte vicar gamely slogging through a minefield of malaproprisms. To American moviegoers, it's all a hoot. To the British, it will have an awful documentary authenticity from the mandatory dirty jokes of those grim speeches to the oddly disheveled look of the occasion, an inevitable consequence of those inherited morning suits to which Englishmen are so attached. Teetering as they do on the brink of self-parody anyway, today's upper-middle classes are probably, in international motion picture terms, Britain's most marketable socio-economic group. I saw both Maurice and Remains of the Day in New York and the audiences roared their heads off at the hilarious social conventions; by turning it into contemporary comedy, Curtis and Newell have merely reduced Merchant-Ivory to its essence.
They can afford their loving, lingering details because the film is simply but ingeniously structured: boy-meets-girl in five scenes — three weddings, a funeral, a fourth wedding. The funeral, in a bleak chapel set among the terraces and smokestacks far from the Scottish reels and marquees on the lawn, is the sort of scene Scott Fitzgerald could have done with in The Great Gatsby. Throughout the film the supporting characters - Kristin Scott Thomas, Simon Callow, John Hannah, James Fleet - move and speak as if they are autonomous personalities, not merely there to provide some functional "support" to the principals. Callow and Hannah, as the gay couple, are the most romantically rooted, which is a tedious convention now but still novel a quarter-century back.
In fact, my only two reservations about the picture are the leading man and leading lady. Gangly goofy Hugh Grant has a nice line in engaging bumbling, projected mostly by blinking his eyes under the weight of his dangling coiffure, but Andie MacDowell is an insipid cipher: if you see the love of your life in her eyes, chances are it's your own reflection. Theirs is a non-relationship, further weakened by the plot's only act of cowardice: it relegates the inevitable casualties of their love to bit-player status. I assume she was the starriest American Newell and Curtis could afford. For the sequel, Notting Hill, Curtis had Hugh Grant upgraded to the unlikely swain of Julia Roberts. And briefly we had a new genre: Brit meets girl.
As I said, it got formulaic pretty quickly, particularly once Curtis started directing his own scripts. Love Actually, less than a decade after Four Weddings, played like (to put in Curtis terms) a K-Tel greatest-hits compilation album. It had one wedding, one funeral; one office party, one school concert; the usual glamorized London landscape, lit like Manhattan and traffic free; Hugh Grant running the gamut from self-deprecatingly charming to charmingly self-deprecating, Colin Firth with his brilliantly sure-footed tentativeness; naff pop songs – Donny Osmond for the wedding, the Bay City Rollers for the funeral; a disquisition by Firth on "Silence Is Golden" by the Tremeloes to match Grant's evocation of "I Think I Love You" by the Partridge Family in Four Weddings...
But for a few years everyone loved the codes and conventions of Curtisland: the slightly snobbish classlessness, the compression of London into one hip village – a telegenic multiculti cast on a Merchant-Ivory set. No one worked harder to sell a new England to the world. Still, my favorite character in Four Weddings is very much a more time-honored type - Fiona, a chum of Hugh Grant's Charlie played by Kristin Scott Thomas with cut-glass bone-china brittleness: as the film faded from my mind during the Nineties and Oughts, the memory of her glacial facial expression during the "unrequited love" scene blazed ever more vividly. The moment when she finally confesses her feelings for Charlie seems more and more the truest moment in the picture, and perhaps the realest in the entire Curtisland oeuvre - or at any rate a zillion times better than any of Grant's scenes with Andie MacDowell. Brit meets girl? He should have stayed closer to home.
~Mark will be back at 10pm Eastern on The Greg Gutfeld Show.
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