He’s one of the more popular British filmmakers, but Richard Curtis is far from the voice of British cinema.
When the name Richard Curtis is brought to mind, one instantly thinks of confetti-ridden happy endings, gleaming wedding gowns and the several key questions that float around his scripts: what makes us English, and what is the English ideal? Yet his romantic comedies can be seen to neglect a comprehensive vision of English society, ignoring the working class and solely focussing on the educated, moneyed elite.
During Four Weddings’ only funeral, the industrial backdrop seems to associate darkness and misery with the working class
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Four Weddings and a Funeral, arguably Curtis’s most popular and successful work as screenwriter. In this film, along with several of his others, the Oxford-educated screenwriter seemingly sets out to portray the quintessential English life, playing with twee stereotypes and middle class caricatures to cement an idea of what it means to be English. Many jokes are centred on this thought during the narrative, such as when Hugh Grant’s protagonist, Charles, remarks: “Do you think there really are people who can just go up and say, “Hi, babe. Name’s Charles. This is your lucky night”?” To which John Hannah’s Matthew responds: “Well, if there are, they’re not English.”
This self-aware and self-referential comedy is a key feature of Curtis’s scripts. Yet this hazy, idealistic, middle-class bubble of ‘true’ English life is only broken at one instance, in Four Weddings, to represent a lower class environment. Significantly, the only moment that does delve into this territory is when the only funeral of the film takes place. Black smoke billows from the factory chimneys as the characters line up in black to mourn their friend, Gareth. Not only does this distinct working class environment and industrial, grey backdrop mirror the tragedy of the death of the extravagant and high-spirited character, it also implicitly associates darkness, poverty and misery with the working class. In the dense midst of weddings, four to be precise, happiness and moneyed comfort, the class distinction is even more prominent.
There is a marked difference when we compare Curtis’s depiction to the work of other contemporary British screenwriters, who inject comedy, colour and vibrancy into their working class representations. Shane Meadows, another prominent British filmmaker, portrays a contrasting exploration of class in his films, most notably in This is England. Though often dealing with the bleak, harsh realities that his characters have to face, his scripts are scattered with light-hearted relief and humorous fun, in a thoroughly working class and grittily realistic environment. This is far removed from the dreamy, middle class, English ideal of Four Weddings.
The perspective of British culture, made up of toffs, appealing eccentricity and clipped plummy accents, is central to Curtis’s work
Perhaps this avoidance of working-class reality in Curtis’s creations is for the benefit of the American audience. Around 20 to 30 per cent of his films’ global grosses regularly come from the US. The stereotypical American perspective of British culture, made up of toffs, suits, appealing eccentricity and clipped plummy accents, is central. Hugh Grant has immortalised this charming, bumbling Brit forever. For audiences across the pond, these films show a glamorised English world of sunshine, sentiment and confetti.
It is also important to note that the central love interest in many of Curtis’s imaginary worlds is an American outsider. This is an archetypal character in Curtis’s back catalogue and comes in the form of Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings, Julia Roberts in Notting Hill and Rachel McAdams in About Time. They act as a counterpart to their English lover, the enchanting foreigner, who further highlights the ‘Englishness’ surrounding them.
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About Time, Curtis’s most recent film, contains all the traditional features in trend with his previous films. Domhnall Gleeson plays the Hugh Grant-equivalent looking for love, in this story of well-off individuals in a white-dominant community. It is optimistic, with not even a whisper of financial hardship or day-to-day problems. With money never being an issue, the protagonist can just worry about the important things in life, like falling in love.
Whether it is snobbery or a comforting ideal of domesticated life, this dreamy, one-sided version of British life is limited and only takes into account the white middle class. Ethnic minorities are hidden from view, and most strikingly so in Notting Hill. The real London borough is diverse and multi-cultural, yet in Curtis’s representation it appears to be comprised, once again, of people of white middle class origins. So it appears that Curtis’s films, up to and including About Time, are less about class divide and more about certain class avoidance. They are feelgood films for a certain middle class audience, about people who make up that middle class audience themselves.
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Featured image: Universal
Inset images: Warp Films; Working Title Films