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Muriel's Wedding' Turns 25

25 years after debuting to modest reviews and a middling box-office, the delightfully camp comedy has re-emerged as a queer cult classic.
Nick Levine
&
April 21, 2020
April 15, 2024
5
min. read
Muriel's Wedding' edit
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Whenever I bump into someone I vaguely know at a gay bar, I know exactly which classic movie line to pull out the bag: “Deidre Chambers, what a coincidence!”

In P.J. Hogan’s 1995 movie Muriel’s Wedding, it’s used by the title character’s father, dodgy politician Bill Heslop, to greet his aggressively groomed mistress, Ms. Chambers, whenever she just happens to show up at a family gathering. If the person knows the line I’m quoting, I feel the unmistakable static charge of a shared cultural reference passing between queers.

Gennie Nevinson, the actress who so fabulously played Deidre Chambers, said a few years ago that “there’s obviously a cult of Muriel’s Wedding fans” and they’re “often gay guys.” This doesn’t surprise me at all.

When I first watched Muriel’s Wedding on TV in the late 90s, I was a closeted gay teenager who hadn’t yet summoned courage to rent a recent LGBTQ+ film like Beautiful Thing or The Birdcage. The stingingly poignant story of Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette), a socially awkward young woman shunned by her sleeker peers in suburban Australia, really hit home. Like me, Muriel was an outsider whose taste in music deviated from the norm—she listened to ABBA instead of Nirvana, a preference I still endorse today.

When sister Joanie (Gabby Millgate) reproaches her with the iconic line “you’re terrible, Muriel,” I felt a kind of vicarious illicit thrill. Unlike Muriel, I hadn’t ripped off my family by using a blank cheque handed to me in good faith to pay for a fancy island vacation, but I had run up the internet bill by gabbing about Madonna in chat rooms for hours on end. We’re all rebel hearts in our own way, I suppose.

\And unlike Muriel, my ultimate dream wasn’t to get married—for a gay kid growing up in the UK in the late 90s, marriage wasn’t even an option. But I could definitely relate to the way she equated getting a boyfriend with a sense of achievement, and how the ostentatious celebration of a wedding became a way of proving to people who looked down on her that she’d made it. Though Muriel is straight, not queer, she’s still different—and like all of us, she doesn’t want to feel “less than” because of it.

Muriel is also a liar, a scammer, and a thief, but she isn’t deluded: she knows full well that her marriage to handsome South African swimmer David Van Arkle (Daniel Lapaine) is a sham to allow him to compete for Australia in the upcoming Olympics. Even so, she approaches their lavish Sydney wedding with a sincerity that's both deeply touching and quintessentially camp. She even walks down the aisle to an ABBA song, helping to kickstart the Swedish band’s pop culture rehabilitation several years before Mamma Mia! came along.

In a way, Muriel’s great tragedy is failing to realize she’d actually made it before she got “engaged.” Reinventing herself as the less dowdy-sounding Mariel, she leaves her humdrum hometown, Porpoise Spit, and relocates to Sydney with her more adventurous best friend Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths). In the city, she gets a job, starts dating and begins to feel something close to happiness—it’s a journey towards becoming your best authentic self that any LGBTQ+ kid (or “Smalltown Boy,” as Bronski Beat once put it) will recognize.

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"When I lived in Porpoise Spit, I used to sit in my room for hours and listen to ABBA songs," she tells Rhonda. "But since I've met you and moved to Sydney, I haven't listened to one ABBA song. That's because my life is as good as an ABBA song. It's as good as ‘Dancing Queen.’"

Although spinal cancer cruelly confines Rhonda to a wheelchair, Muriel still ditches her for David, forcing her friend to return to Porpoise Spit. Muriel’s redemption comes when she calls time on her marriage of convenience—after an unanticipated night of passion with her hunky husband that I’m definitely not judging her for. Reinstating her original name as a kind of mea culpa for everything she’s done wrong, she returns to Porpoise Spit with some of the money she owes her family, and a tacitly apologetic offer for Rhonda: Come back to Sydney with me.

The film’s exhilarating final scene sees Muriel and Rhonda shout “Goodbye, Porpoise Spit!” from a cab window as they head to the airport and the promise of Sydney. It’s a moment that any queer young kid who shakes off the shackles of heteronormativity in pursuit of something bigger, truer, and more exciting will still find rousing today, 25 years after the film opened.

If you’ve never seen Muriel’s Wedding before and think Cher belting out “Fernando” in Mamma Mia! 2 is the last ABBA tribute you’ll ever need to see, I’d urge you to think again— Muriel and Rhonda deliver a storming performance of “Waterloo.” Muriel’s painfully messy but ultimately successful journey towards self-acceptance is what makes this film an enduring queer classic that’s definitely worth seeking out; “Deidre Chambers, what a coincidence!” is just one expression of its glorious campy poignancy.

Check out the trailer below.

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