So it’s a week before Xmas and so, therefore, obviously the best time to review four more Hugh Grant movies. And in some kind of seasonal miracle we’ve actually reached the films that people have heard of that are good. Well, ish.
Wow, this film contains a lot of boobs. It includes Tara Fitzgerald’s boobs, Portia de Rossi’s boobs, Elle Macpherson’s boobs, and so some other boobs that have kind of blurred a bit because there are just so many boobs.
Anyway. Hugh Grant plays a repressed English clergyman (I mean, he actually plays a repressed English clergyman as opposed to all his other films were he just might as well be playing a repressed English clergyman) who is dispatched by his diocese to confront an artist whose works are at risk of being withdrawn from a local exhibition on account of all the boobs they’ve got in them. The premise is already quite odd. Either the church is hosting an exhibition to which they’ve randomly invited the kind of artist whose paintings are always full of boobs and are now surprised that his paintings are full of boobs even though his paintings are always full of boobs. Or else somebody else is hosting an exhibition to which they’ve invited this artist whose paintings are always full of boobs, have been surprised at quite how full of boobs some of the paintings are and have unaccountably called upon church to intervene. I think there’s an implication that one of the paintings is explicitly blasphemous because it shows a naked woman being crucified (because female sexuality oh d’you see) but this still doesn’t really explain how we came to either one of these scenarios. If it’s a specifically church sponsored exhibition why invite the boob-centric artist with the explicitly pagan leanings in the first place? If it’s not, why do you care, and why are you getting Father Hugh to sort it out? Basically the whole thing is a paper-thin premise to get Hugh Grant being Hugh Grant at Sam Neill while Tara Fitzgerald has a sexual awakening with the help of some nude Australians.
I actually quite enjoyed Sirens. I don’t quite know why. I think, and maybe I’m only justifying the sheer amount of time I spent watching naked women frolic in a billabong, but I feel like the film has a weirdly mature level of self-awareness about its weirdly adolescent approach to sexuality. I mean, on one level the film’s core thesis is “yay boobs” and Hugh Grant’s character is presented as a terrible stick-in-the-mud for not sharing its “let me get my hands on your mammary glands” philosophy. But on another there’s an interesting parallelism between Hugh Grant’s clergyman and Sam Neill’s artist in that they both basically spend all of their time talking abstractly about life while the artists’ models and, eventually, Hugh Grant’s wife are actually going out and living it. There’s a bit where Sam Neill’s character very openly admits that he himself is something of a wallflower and that the reason he stays in an isolated house in the Bush painting pictures of naked women is that he’s afraid to go out and live his principles. And I think that’s quite an unusual way to portray that kind of character because normally libertine artists are presented as super cool iconoclasts who are living wild and painting hard.
Of course this contrast between the detached, hypocritical, emotionally cowardly male characters and the liberated, sensual, getting-their-boobs-out-all-the-time female characters is a little bit essentialist and does, unhelpfully, reinforce Sam Neill’s character’s over-simplistic line of neo-Pagan waffle about how female sexuality is all primal and natural and shit and it’s only the bad patriarchal church that has kept it in line (this is not true, they had sexism in Rome, and women couldn’t vote in ancient Athens). But it does at least mean that (in some ways like Rowing With the Wind and Impromptu) the film places an interesting emphasis on its female characters. In many ways the protagonist of the film is Tara Fitzgerald, in her role as the clergyman’s wife who gradually discovers that bonking is fun.
Again, I don’t talk about disability issues much on this blog because I have zero standing but there’s a recurring subplot in which most of the women in the film have the hots for an attractive blind farmhand. And I think this meant parallel the Ulysses myth where he can only survive the sirens because he deafens himself but it still comes across as a bit creepy and kind of fetishistic. There’s a particularly difficult bit where Tara Fitzgerald, having had her own sexual awakening with the large donged blind man, enables Portia de Rossi to have a sexual awakening too by tricking her into tricking him into thinking that she (Portia de Rossi) is, in fact, her (Tara Fitzgerald). Let’s just be super clear here: getting someone to have sex with you by making them think you are someone else is still rape, even you are Portia de Rossi and they are a hot dude with a big dick.
Goodness of film: I feel I should give this a 3 on merit but terms of actual enjoyment enjoyment I think it might be a 4. I mean, it’s not a good film in many ways but I think the thing is that I can’t see how it could be better without being a fundamentally different movie and, as we know, I respond positively to things that are what they are.
Hugh Grantiness of film: This has to be 5. He plays a repressed clergyman who has difficulty talking to his wife about sex which leads her to go and have sex with somebody else. This is the patient zero of Hugh Grant roles.
Four Weddings and a Funeral
This one is really difficult to talk about for roughly the same reason (albeit on a different scale) that’s it’s difficult to talk about Shakespeare or Elvis. The idea of Four Weddings and Funeral is just so much bigger than the film itself that I’m just not sure it’s possible to have an objective opinion about it. I mean, this film basically embodies what it was supposed to mean to be English in the 90s. Unfortunately a significant proportion of the things it was supposed to mean to be English in the 90s were white, middle class, ambiguously Oxbridge educated, and primarily metropolitan but with charming stopovers in quaint villages. And I think that might be the biggest part of what’s making my reactions to Four Weddings so complicated.
I seem to recall that when I watched this film 20 years ago I accepted it pretty much thinkingly as a delightful, if quirky, portrayal of what English life is like. The England of Four Weddings is the England of Hugh Grant saying “fuck” on a village green. It’s meeting a free-spirited American lady in a Tudor pub. It’s two steps down the road from and ten minutes more up-to-date than Downton Abbey. It’s a world in which you’re allowed to say “shit” as long as you also say “gosh”. (And, for what it’s worth, I did a little bit of background Googling while I was writing this and, while I intended that line to be a glib synopsis of the film’s style it is, in fact, actually true that the two most repeated words in the script are “fuck” and “splendid”.) It’s perfectly pitched to seem comforting and familiar to people who are slightly more progressive and urban than its characters, and titillating and a little bit shocking to people who are slightly less progressive and more urban. But as someone whose life is as close to that archetype as its basically possible to get without actually being a cartoon character I’m just awkwardly aware that the England it presents is basically a myth. And, in a post-Brexit reality, I’m especially conscious that it’s a myth that 52% of my peers were so keen to inhabit that they voted for cultural and economic disaster.
Because, let’s not beat about the bush, this idealised version of England to which we are all sort of supposed to aspire is one in which everyone is white and no-one is working class, and you’re only allowed to be gay if no-one mentions it and at least one of you winds up dead.
So, yeah. Re-watching Four Weddings was the thing that kicked off this whole Hugh Grant experiment in the first place but, I’ll be honest, I didn’t much enjoy it. The pacing is really weird because it literally takes place at or in the immediate vicinity of four weddings and one funeral so we only get glimpses of these people’s lives. Which I know is sort of the point but, again, I’m troubled by the extent to which we are assumed to be able to fill in the details from our own preconceptions about the nature of Englishness. I mean, you know nothing about Hugh Grant’s character (whose name is Charles for what it’s worth) except he occasionally wears glasses and has been in some relationships with some women. Andie McDowell’s character (Carrie, although it took me a moment to remember that) fares even worse in that she’s just a human female from America. And, again, everything we need to know about her we are supposed to intuit from the fact she is American and, therefore, not English. And, therefore, embodies everything that is different from but complementary to the narrowly defined concept of Englishness which we are, again, supposed to project onto the rest of the characters on the basis of our shared cultural assumptions.
And I do, on some level, understand that this is clever storytelling. At the final wedding, where we discover that Charles is marrying Duckface,you basically know the whole arc of that relationship based on one conversation where she calls Charles a serial monogamist and in which he’s rude to her. But you can only fill in the details of that story because you can make a whole bunch of assumptions about who these people are, but those assumptions exclude huge chunks of British society who, twenty years later on, I’m well-aware exist. I mean, for fuck’s sake, the film contains more members of the landed aristocracy than people from a BME background.
And, to be fair, it’s probably not totally appropriate of me to be looking at Four Weddings with my 2017 eyes on. Again, my peripheral Googling suggests that quite a lot of people at the time actually found it quite subversive. Because, actually, Charles isn’t a traditional romance hero, the idea that you could say “fuck” and “splendid” in the same script was novel two decades ago, he doesn’t, in fact, wind up married to Carrie, and the film takes its same-sex relationship about as seriously as it was possible to take a same-sex relationship in a mainstream movie un 1994. I’ve been really dismissive about the “kill the gay” arc but I do read it as a well-meaning attempt to affirm the validity of John Hannah and Simon Callow’s relationship. Essentially if you’re not allowed to depict love then the loss of love is the next best thing (see A Single Man). So, actually, although I watch the film today and think “gosh (and I’m aware it’s ironic I’m using the word gosh here) this film is nothing but a bunch of godawful stereotypes about Englishness” there’s an extent to which these things became godawful stereotypes about Englishness because of this film. It’s a little bit like going back and watching the original Psycho where every shot looks really cliched because people have been ripping it off for fifty years.
Goodness of film: I actually can’t answer this one. It’s obviously funny and charming and loads of people love it. But, in retrospect, I really, really didn’t. It made me uncomfortable in a lot of weird ways and I found the central relationship between Charles and Carrie genuinely a bit unsatisfying. I mean, they have two conversations and neither of them have any actual personality. Also I find the way the film treats Duckface really unpleasant, and I think maybe I always did. I mean basically Charles treats her horribly throughout, culminating in actually leaving her at the actual altar, and we’re supposed to forgive this in the name of the twu wuv he supposedly has for a woman with whom he’s spoken three times in five years. So … I don’t know? Like 2 if you’re me? 4 if you’re basically anyone else.
Hugh Grantiness of film: 4. Okay, hear me out on this. Yes, this is the Hugh Grant role which made Hugh Grant Hugh Grant. The thing is, Hugh Grant at his Hugh Grantiest is bumbling and awkward but in a way that either obviously stems from a place of damage or repression and is bad for him and everyone around him (see Sirens, Bitter Moon) or represents a sincere unwillingness to hurt others that makes him endearing if ineffectual (see Notting Hill, Impromptu, The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill And Came Down A Mountain). In Four Weddings he’s sort of the first but treated like the second. That is, his social uncertainty mostly manifests in his being a dick to people who are more vulnerable than he is (like Duckface and even Fiona, whose feelings he’s spent more than a decade ignoring) but somehow we’re still supposed to find him sweet and harmless. Fuck off Charles. Splendid.
PS – This was Ducky’s favourite movie because it contained a character called Duckface. She considers it problematic that Duckface was not, in fact, played by duck but considers it a step in the right direction.
An Awfully Big Adventure
This film reminded me that Hugh Grant is actually quite good at the part of his job that involves being an actor as well as the part of his job that involves being Hugh Grant.
An Awfully Big Adventure is weird, fascinating and painfully oblique. It’s based on a novel of the same name, which I haven’t read so no help there, but one of the first things that struck me about the film was that it had an almost novel-like commitment to viewpoint. The protagonist of the movie is a young, aspiring actress named Stella who becomes involved with a thoroughly seedy theatrical company run by the equally seedy Meredith Potter (Hugh Grant) with whom she falls instantly and problematically in love.
In a book it is relatively easy to tell a story from within a particular person’s worldview because, even with third person narration, everything that is communicated to the reader can be filtered through that person’s perception. Achieving the same affect in film is much harder unless you rely on gimmicks like literally only showing what the protagonists sees, liberal use of hallucinations or dream sequences, or else include non-diegetic elements like voice over. Yet somehow the whole of An Awfully Big Adventure is coloured by the perspective and ignorance of a sixteen year old Liverpudlian ingenue shortly after the second world war. And what’s even more impressive is that the film never really lies to you, it just withholds exactly enough context (either because Stella is herself unaware of it or because it is so integral to her that she is not conscious of it) to keep you constantly re-evaluating your interpretations. Even much of what you take for granted about Stella is eventually revealed to be something else entirely.
All of which said, I can sort of see why people haven’t warmed to this film because watching it is a little bit like doing homework. Weirdly enough, the closest analogies I can think of are the 2011 production of Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, which nothing is revealed except thorough interference and which I am capable of following only because I’ve watched it about about six times and because I’m also very familiar with the book, and the British satirical dramedy The Thick Of It, in which, again, a lot of complex political stuff gets decided in circuitous sweary conversations that only make sense when you look back the end of the episode and unpick everything that happened in it. But I really like this kind of thing—not I hasten to add because I’m spectacularly skilled interpreter of texts, but because I really enjoy puzzles.
The title of An Awfully Big Adventure is, obviously, an allusion to Peter Pan and, Jesus Fucking Christ, does that metaphor do a lot of heavy lifting. I mean, I don’t even know where to begin. At the most basic level, Stella feels like she’s having an adventure but really she’s on a sort of promethean descent into the underworld, and she’s also growing up, and the quote itself is about death, and is from a book about a boy who wouldn’t grow up, and the reason he wouldn’t grow up is because he was a metaphor for the author’s dead brother and the whole of Peter Pan is basically about JM Barrie navigating his response to his mother’s response to his brother’s death, and the film is all about how people respond to other people’s responses to their loss and trauma, either from the war, or from other events in their lives. And on top of that Peter Pan is about the dangers and the pleasures of sexuality and Stella experiences a sexual awakening as part of the story, which—spoiler—resonates strongly with the fact that, in traditional theatrical productions, the roles of Captain Hook and Mr Darling are played by the same actor. Meredith himself seems to be trapped in an eternal adolescence, seeking the hearts and, um, other bits of the young and vulnerable, and collecting about him his own cadre of lost boys. And … yeah. It goes on and on and on.
Side note: I’m pretty sure that at this point I’ve seen more things about people putting on productions of Peter Pan in which the symbolism of the play is ironically resonant with the lives of the actors than I have seen actual productions of Peter Pan.
Just in case this has made anyone want to watch the film I should add that it goes to some incredibly dark and potentially triggering places. There’s a fairly explicit sexual relationship between a sixteen-year-old girl and a middle-aged man, and, yes, the middle-aged man is Alan Rickman, but that doesn’t actually make it less skeevy. There’s an incest angle. There’s suicide. There’s emotional abuse. It’s also just really, really sad. But in a fascinating way if this is the sort of thing you’re fascinated by.
Goodness of film: This is like the opposite of Four Weddings in that I love it, but most other people really don’t. I mean, I’ve genuinely thought about this film, on and off, ever since I’ve watched it, and I kind of think it probably isn’t going to leave me alone ever. Because of that I want to give it a 5. But I suspect for a lot people it will be a 2.
Hugh Grantiness of film: This is a difficult one because he has a major role and is very good in that role but, unusually, that role is not Hugh Grant. I mean, there’s even a scene where he’s covered in vomit, holding forth about interpretations of Peter Pan. He seems vulnerable but not in the bumbling way we know and, um, know. He’s cruel and unpleasant and selfish, but weirdly compelling with it. He also wears a monocle (but thankfully not a moustache). I’m giving this a 4 because it’s Hugh Grant at his best, if his least typical.
The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down a Mountain
Reviewing Hugh Grant’s filmography one might be forgiven for assuming that in the 1990s the British only made movies about the war or the Regions or, occasionally, weddings and/or funerals. This one is about the war and the Regions. Set in a small village in Wales, The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down a Mountain (hereinafter abbreviated to the much more convenient TEWWUAHBCDAM) uses the deceptively quirky story of a community that builds a 20ft mound of earth atop a local hill in order to push it over the limit at which it would be classified as a mountain on a ordnance survey map to explore the ways in which the First World War in particular, and loss in general, impacts small communities.
I can’t tell if it’s just because I watched it on a winter’s afternoon under a duvet but I cried a lot. As such I’m not entirely confident it in my ability to objectively evaluate it.
It’s based on a story the writer/director was told about the hill above the village where he grew up and it’s shot through with a sense of real love for Wales, the Welsh mountains, and at least a version of Welsh cultural identity. This does, perhaps, make it slightly problematic that film seems to contain basically no Welsh actors. Hugh Grant is Hugh Grant (although he does at least play an Englishman), the most prominent member of the village community, the lecherous, chancer of a publican known locally as Morgan the Goat is played by Colm Meaney (who is, of course, a. Irish and b. from the 24th century), and Hugh Grant’s love interest is Tara Fitzgerald (who also plays his wife in Sirens and is very, very English). To be fair, the local reverend is a fairly prominent character and is played by a legit Welshman (the late Kenneth Griffith, who also appears in Four Weddings and a Funeral, in which he’s credited as ‘mad old man’ – he’s the guy who, when Charles says, ‘I’m Charles’ responds with “What are you talking about? Charles has been dead for years.’) but I’m never quite confident identifying which marginalised groups it is and is not okay to have played on TV by people who are not members of those marginalised groups. And obviously this gets tricky and I’m not trying to minimise the experience of the marginalised people who it’s definitely not okay to have portrayed by actors who aren’t members of those groups but I do think it’s worth mentioning occasionally that the Welsh actually did get treated spectacularly shittily by the English for literally centuries, and the fact that we still don’t really acknowledge that is really problematic.
Like there’s a throwaway line in the British sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf where a character says “Broadcast on all known frequencies and in all known languages, including Welsh” and the joke here is that Welsh isn’t really seen as a proper language. Except a large part of the reason Welsh isn’t seen as a proper language is because not a lot of people speak it and a large of reason not a lot of people speak it is because the English spent two hundred years trying to deliberately exterminate it. Even in this film the fact that the two English guys can’t pronounce the name of mountain (Ffynnon Garw)is a recurring joke. And while I think the joke is supposed to be that the two Englishmen who are here to judge this place understand it so little that they can’t even say its name correctly there’s a whole wider cultural context of laughing at how silly and unpronounceable Welsh place names are which makes it quite hard to read that unambiguously.
On one level I’m very conscious that that this film is basically telling the six millionth iteration of one of the default moving stories of British cinema. If it’s not “working class man does unusual thing to support family after pits close” it’s “small rural community does seemingly pointless thing in order to signify their togetherness and solidarity.” The thing is it’s a really well done version of that story. The horny publican and the pious reverend ultimately recognise in each other the same need to repair their war-damaged community. The guy with shellshock earns a measure of peace by applying the knowledge he gained in the trenches to achieve something hopeful rather than destructive. The repressed Englishman played by Hugh Grant comes to terms with his experiences in the war through this honestly somewhat lightly sketched relationship with Tara Fitzgerald and his less lightly sketched relationship with the Welsh landscape. The community ultimately comes together to process their grief and discover that they can literally move mountains. Awww.
The film is a strange mix of quite heavy-handed and extremely deft. There’s a narrator who occasionally makes quite specific speeches about Welsh heritage and the Welsh mountain and what the Welsh mountains mean to Wales, but at the same time there are lots of subtler bits, like the way a mound of earth on a hillside suddenly becomes a trench in Ypres through the eyes of man with shellshock, and the way war time experiences are depicted in absences and silences and the restless search for meaning in the ones who are left behind. A tiny thing I really liked is that there’s a refrain throughout the film, in which initially the publican and later Tara Fitzgerald persuade people to help with the mad plan to build a mountain with the line “do you want me to have to say this failed because of you” which, although it’s used for a frivolous and ultimately positive purpose, is also hauntingly reminiscent of those manipulative propaganda posters from the First World War, where there’s a man in slippers by the fire with his judgmental children looking up at him going “What did you do in the Great War, daddy?”
Goodness of film: I think it’s probably a generous 4. Like I’m aware it’s basically a slightly twee, slightly manipulative happy-sad movie about community and shit. But it happens to really personally push my buttons and it’s my blog so 4.
Hugh Grantiness of film: This is a 5. It’s the Hugh Grant character that I thought I remembered him being in Four Weddings but he actually wasn’t. He’s a man imprisoned by his own niceness and secret wartime pain. Also there’s a bit where he says “I’m going to blush” and then he actually blushes and this blew my mind because, oh my gosh, how do you that? Actors they’re so clever. I should also mention that he wears a sequence of endearingly silly outfits including but not limited to a sowester, and shorts with knee socks.
And that it’s for this instalment. I should also say that Mary and I are going on a brief social media holiday over the Xmas and New Year period – which means I’ll be a bit sporadic, although there might be additional Hugh Grant updates because I have literally nothing else to do. As ever you can reach me at ajhatquincunquevultdotcom and mary at maryatquicunquevultdotcom. Happy holidays for everyone for whom that’s a thing.