Four Weddings and a Funeral is, as anyone who has not been honeymooning the last month in the Bahamas knows, a romantic comedy whose title is its plot, and whose characters live in a world of titles. Almost the entire film takes place on five summer days. With the sort of unreliability that only devastating charm can pardon, our hero Charles (Hugh Grant) scuttles, last-minute, from one ceremony to another, glancing at the service-sheet to remind him who the principals are. The supporting cast is always the same. And always too there's a gorgeous American woman (Andie MacDowell) parked a few pews behind him, threatening to stir him out of his serial monogamy.
The film has made Hugh Grant a star, and you can see why. In addition to a hairstyle bouncily intact from prep- school days, he has, for a leading man, a rare sweetness of character. Diffident without being gauche, he flashes a winning smile that's both tight-lipped and toothy. When he walks, it's with a stiffly apologetic sidle. And when he talks, the words seem to have crawled, sheepishly, from the back of his throat. It's not his fault he's been compared to his great namesake Cary (he's modestly, or craftily, suggested he's closer to Russell). But it is ridiculous. Cary Grant was a great actor, whose charm was ambivalent, simultaneously seductive and repellent. Hugh Grant has so far shown a winning presence (for me, his good-natured puzzlement at Anthony Hopkins's birds-and-bees lecture was the highlight of The Remains of the Day) without suggesting much complexity or range. He has the brittle self-deprecation of David Niven - but not the smarminess. He may be an original.
Richard Curtis's script gives Grant ample opportunity for his trademark embarrassed hesitation - a desperate groping for the balm of wit. We're in a milieu in which aitches are never dropped, but bricks often are. Curtis welds a series of good revue sketches on the theme into a film. His underrated last movie, The Tall Guy, pin-pointed the foibles of the theatrical world in a series of set pieces. Here he does the same for weddings: the over-eager bride, the gaffe-strewn best man's speech, the boomingly self-indulgent lesson-reader are all sent up.
The film's ceremonial settings are not a gimmick. They hold it together. Structure plays a crucial, undervalued role in screen comedy (think of the perfect symmetry of Bringing Up Baby). Without such a tight framework Four Weddings might have fallen to pieces. Curtis has yet to master the difficult trick of letting his characters develop and deepen. Most of them here are smartly drawn and superbly played ciphers - the broad-bottomed Scottish Tory MP (Corin Redgrave), the ebullient gay (Simon Callow), the dim multi-millionaire (James Fleet) - there to make up the numbers of gags. Then there's Rowan Atkinson's film-stealing, word-mangling vicar, a kind of Reverend Malaprop (Curtis's next task must be to provide the movie vehicle for Atkinson to ride to superstardom). Even Andie MacDowell is little more than an exceptionally pretty face.
Director Mike Newell doesn't have the supple gift for comedy that Mel Smith showed in The Tall Guy. The jokes get straitjacketed, but that's mainly because Newell is doing such a good job shaping the rather woolly romance into something quite touching - by the end he almost makes us care about these barely sketched lovers. (His reward, according to this week's Hollywood gossip, may be to direct a schlock-buster, The Bridges of Madison County, with Clint Eastwood in the romantic lead.) It's a solid and meticulous piece of direction.
It's probably too late, but try to avoid media coverage and trailers of the film. By the time I saw it, I could have recited many of the punch lines. The best of the jokes are good - though less probing than, say, Woody Allen's - but they should be heard fresh. The worst are fairly crude (unbuttoned dresses, Grant's manic cussing, etc). In the funeral there are hints of a subtler film, as a young gay Scot (John Hannah) delivers a beautiful eulogy. The focus changes, and you wonder what the film might have been like if it had been seen through the eyes of this outsider - a Scot in England, a gay among heterosexuals. It might have made for something deeper, which didn't assume paring off to be the only happy ending. But perhaps that's like asking for substance in a souffle. Better to charge your glass, and toast Four Weddings that pass faster than any single ceremony you can remember.
Most blindness films are about sightlessness itself - from a French Revolutionary Lillian Gish searching for her blind sister in Orphans of the Storm (1922) to Jocelyn Moorhouse's Proof (1991). Michael Apted's Blink (18) is about recovering sight. It might be the film of Jack Nicholson's speech in The Passenger, about the man who, having regained his sight, killed himself because he hadn't realised how ugly the world was. Madeleine Stowe's character in Blink suffers a similar disillusionment after a corneal transplant. But she doesn't do herself in. That's left for a serial killer to attempt.
Blink collapses in the final straight, when Apted fails to steer home the implausible plot. But before then, it's very good indeed. The film imagines what it would be like to see after 20 years of darkness, showing us a world without perspective, with no depth of vision - rippling, as if written on water. Here, the cinematography (by Dante Spinotti, whose thrilling, hurtling camera you may remember from The Last of the Mohicans) is the opposite to Citizen Kane's spatiousness - shallow-focus photography. The script is full of deft insights into sight. Aidan Quinn plays the detective who falls in love with Stowe (a pair of people learning to look). And Stowe shows star potential, bringing an edge of hysteria to her performance without ever losing focus. A thriller that fails at the death sounds disastrous, but this one is well worth watching.
A Dangerous Woman (15) is a fine performance in search of a film. Debra Winger plays Martha, a dowdy, waddling misfit, with a fatal social handicap - a compulsion always to tell the truth. A couple of plots come and go, along with some good scenes which don't meld. But Winger is brilliant. When Gabriel Byrne's labourer takes a drunken shine to her, she has the look of rapture and disbelief on her face of a woman kissed for the first time - she's showing us a soul awakening. Her performance is the sort of act of transformation we associate more with male actors - usually called Day-Lewis or De Niro. You'd be hard pressed to recognise the perky beauty on Senator Bob Kerrey's arm at this year's Oscars in the figure writhing, half-naked, in the film's most daring scene, in a sort of desperate, semi-masturbatory abandon. It's acting of an order that deserves better than the film's cheap, final grope for melodrama.
My New Gun (15) is also a curate's egg. A comedy about a man giving a gun to his wife and being repaid by her having an affair with the long-haired boy next door, it's a mixture of the brilliantly deadpan, and the simply dead.
The Puppetmaster (15), now showing at the ICA, is a Taiwanese epic depicting scenes from a great puppeteer's rebellious life. Stunningly but staticly shot, it's said by purists to be truer to the spirit of Far Eastern art than more vaunted recent films from China. Impurist that I am, I found it hard going.
'The Puppetmaster': ICA, SW1, 071-930 3647, 3.00 (today only), 5.40, 8.30. Other details: Review, page 82.
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