Muriel (Toni Collette) is unemployed, not very popular, a bit of an ugly duckling (with low self-esteem), and lives in the dead-end town of Porpoise Spit. Oh, and her parents (depressed mum Jeanie Drynan and shonky local politician dad Bill Hunter) are on the verge of separation due mostly to dad’s not very subtle philandering and generally derisive attitude towards his wife and kids. Meanwhile, her siblings (particularly the dopey Dan Wyllie and couch potato Gabby Millgate- who became a popular TV presence for about three seconds after this film) Muriel’s a dreamer, though, and in particular dreams of getting married. To escape her mundane, friendless existence she plays ABBA records constantly, which help tide her over until things pick up. One day, it appears that indeed things are starting to work out for her. Firstly, she grabs the bouquet at an acquaintance’s wedding, much to the bride (Sophie Lee) and bridesmaids’ chagrin. She decides to go on vacation (via dubious funding) to get away from Porpoise Spit, and becomes fast friends with fellow Porpoise Spit expat and ABBA fan Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths). Eventually the two move in together, and finally she has a true friend, albeit a seriously hedonistic one. She even finds herself a husband...a South African-born swimmer (Daniel Lapaine) looking for a way to stay in the country. Unfortunately, Muriel’s criminality is about to catch up to her, and will affect just about everyone she knows. Gennie Nevinson plays Deirdre, the cosmetics saleswoman whom Hunter is having an affair with. Matt Day plays a nice, awkward guy that Muriel meets along the way, and there are lots of familiar local faces throughout.
One of the very best Australian films of all-time, this 1994 film from writer-director P.J. Hogan (who went to Hollywood afterwards to make the much lesser “My Best Friend’s Wedding”) is a lot different to what you might expect when watching it for the first time. It was pretty much marketed as the feelgood film of the year, but whilst it does have moments of hilarity and a lot of heart, it’s actually quite a depressing film. And I actually liked that about it, I really responded to it. Yes, I even embraced Muriel living off money that doesn’t belong to her, because everyone else was such a shit to her. Damn it, the girl deserved some happiness, criminally-funded or not. Mind you, I can’t argue that the person she’s really robbing is quite innocent and ends up in a bad way over it. But, then, this ain’t no cheery mainstream Hollywood romcom, so that’s OK, I embraced its refusal to go in clichéd, more upbeat areas. In some ways the film is the perfect bridge between the sort of broad comedy found in “Strictly Ballroom” and the more serious, kitchen sink dramas that get the critics salivating. It’s a lot less caricatured and garish than “Ballroom” and far more accessible than many of those critically-acclaimed arthouse dramas, and thus is a film for just about everyone (except perhaps ABBA haters, but if that’s you, I kinda pity you). You might even find yourself shedding a tear or two, in between the laughs.
Toni Collette gives a truly star-making performance as the often derided and pushed-aside dreamer Muriel (an absolutely captivating and charming character despite some dubious behaviour), and the late Bill Hunter is pitch-perfect as her selfish, dishonest, and derisive father. Jeanie Drynan has some affecting moments as the neglected matriarch of the Heslop family (especially in her few scenes with Muriel), but her character doesn’t have much consistency. At times she seems to be more pathetic than sympathetic, and off in her own little world. More scenes between her and Muriel, showing her genuinely loving and caring side would’ve helped.
Excellent ABBA soundtrack provide most of the joyous moments in the film, though Muriel’s awkward sex scene on a beanbag is one of the most infectiously funny scenes in any film of 1994, with Muriel’s constant giggling. Muriel might be viewed by others as a bit of an ugly duckling, but her film is an absolute beauty.