The two very best comedies in the history of Australian
cinema are The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s
Wedding. There I said it.
That’s just how I feel, and yes you may feel different, but
what’s the competition? Sure, The Castle is a national touchstone, but
it’s more quirky, weird film than something deep. It’s nice, but utterly
simple, and sometimes, or most times, comedy deserves to be more. Comedy, like
any genre, succeeds when it has something to say, rather than exist for its own
Priscilla and Muriel’s Wedding both have that
something more to them. There are some major similarities, both released in
1994, both featuring stories of characters not often seen as the leads in
Australian films (or movies in general for that matter), both were major
financial successes, and both of their respective directors, Stephan Elliott
and P.J. Hogan, never made anything close to as good as these films. And
especially, both films have been credited to the resurgence in ABBA popularity
across the country in the 90s. Also, Bill Hunter is in both, which isn’t a
These films are seen at first as feel-good comedies
featuring oddball Australians in weird locations being quirky and all the stuff
that Australian movies get described as. Beneath each film is a story about
trying to overcome deep personal insecurities and defying conventional
expectations to be better and find a purpose in life.
Priscilla, if you haven’t seen it, is about three
drag queens from Sydney traveling to perform a show at Alice Springs, and how
their journey is one of dealing with homophobia and responsibility, as well as
being as flamboyant as possible to make a personal statement. It is a
ridiculously funny, colourful, and strange film that does use broad stereotypes
of queer characters, but it’s entry-level into the world of the LGBT community
in Australia, or just a small part of it, while still showing the truth of
being queer in the middle of the country at a time when it was far away from
the progressive mindsets we have now.
Muriel’s Wedding, if you haven’t seen it, is about
Muriel Heslop who’s dream in life is to escape her dingy small town and have a
big, white, storybook wedding to whisk her away into a better life. With this
dream in mind, she scams her family out of $12,000, moves to Sydney with her
best friend, and finds her big white wedding, but everything about that dream
is wrong. In her tunnel vision, her friends and family get left behind to their
listless lives, and it takes losing everything for Muriel to actually realise
what matters most in the world.
What interests me the most in these films is not colourful
costumes, carefree use of profanity, or the nostalgia-heavy soundtracks, but
how each film can have all those things with great humour and still balance
effective moments of drama without it ever feeling way out of place. Each film
tells a journey of characters understanding life in their own ways, in ways
that audiences can still understand no matter what. You can see yourself in
Muriel Heslop, wanting to escape your dingy, gross-sounding name town and a
meaningless life to find something better in the world, or like Tick Belrose,
Bernadette Bassenger and Adam Whitely, trying to live your very best life in a
world that seems to reject the very idea of you.
Priscilla balances its strengths of incredible
costume design, gorgeous cinematography and fantastical visual style with
themes of paedophilia, fatherhood, homophobia, and transphobia, and still is
entertaining and fun nonetheless. Muriel’s Wedding has rather
confronting themes of infidelity, corruption, poverty, mental illness, physical
rehabilitation, masculinity, and loving yourself while still making you feel
endlessly hopeful and joyful in the end. This balance is up to the incredible
directions from Stephan Elliott and P.J. Hogan and terrific performances from
Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Terence Stamp, Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths,
Jeanie Drynan, Gabby Millgate, Daniel Wyllie, and Bill Hunter.
Looking back on each film now, sure some things have not
aged well. For one thing, both were made in the mid 90s so despite great
costumes in Priscilla, the fashion in Muriel’s Wedding is horrendous.
Both films aren’t subtle about their themes, thus their broad depictions of
female friendships or members of the LGBT community can feel heavy-handed or
awkward by today’s standards. But they both broke ground for Australian cinema
in ways that have yet to be exceeded today.
Muriel’s Wedding depicted everyday Australian life in
small suburbs like how many have lived, unafraid to be frank about the
hardships people go through just to get a bit ahead in life. The Heslops are
working class, and have their own problems, like most Australian families, and
a main cast of Australian women with most of the speaking roles seems more and
more like a rarity. With Priscilla, the obvious ground broken has been
discussed with the open and proud depiction of LGBT people, but also has one
scene I always think back on for reference to a positive depiction of race.
Yes, the scene of the Asian stripper-wife is not good and is the film’s big
weakspot, but the casual inclusion of a group of Indigenous Australians who happily
participate in a fun dance number with the drag queen trio is one of the only
times in Australian film that the Indigenous are not just treated as mystical
elders or the subjects of racism.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s
Wedding are some of the best-balanced, funniest and most meaningful films
we as a country have to offer, and yes they are dated in a way, they have
timeless themes, perfectly interwoven throughout. I cannot think of a more
enjoyable and engaging double feature in Australian cinema!
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