Australia cinema, since its beginning, has often struggled. With it being a national cinema outside of the reigning Hollywood, the industry has often faced difficulties and even stopped making feature films for fifteen years after the release of Charles Chauvel’s Jedda in 1955. Despite this, at its core, this cinema has always focused heavily on the concepts of mateship and friendship because of how embedded it is within Australian culture. This dates back to its Colonial history, but it hasn’t faltered since. Whether it’s “cracking open a cold one with the boys”, the shared ritual of watching Aussie rules or just about anything that consists of a group of friends doing something together. The prominence of friendship within Australian culture has since been reflected in its cinema and September and Muriel’s Wedding are two examples of this.
These films depict two very different bonds. September, directed by Peter Carstairs, adopts the masculine approach to this theme of mateship, which is a frequent focus in Australian cinema. At the centre of this coming-of-age film, is the inseparable bond between Paddy (Clarence John Ryan), who is Australian Indigenous, and Ed (Xavier Samuel), who is Caucasian. Their friendship is tested in the changing climate of 1968 Western Australia, a year after the Referendum that proposed the Constitution be altered, allowing the Commonwealth to make laws for Indigenous people and for them to be included in the national census.
Muriel’s Wedding, directed by Paul Hogan, strays away from the camaraderie between men and instead revolves around the friendship of two women, Muriel (Toni Colette) and a former high school classmate of her’s, Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths). The bonds present in both films contribute greatly to the growth of these characters. Paddy and Ed’s relationship dates back to when they were children — the boys now fifteen and on the cusp of sixteen. Unlike Muriel’s Wedding, the socio-political climate of Australia plays a factor in this film and the bond of these two boys. Their fathers were also once close friends, but the changing world had caused a rift in their relationship. It’s almost a foreshadowing for what could inevitably happen to Paddy and Ed.
In Australian cinema, friendship is a commitment — it’s a deep bond that is often depicted through a shared activity — a common interest. Wake in Fright notably shows it through the act of excessive drinking and how it can ultimately affect men and the bonds they share. September shows it through Paddy and Ed’s mutual interest in boxing, which is sparked by the arrival of the Jimmy Sharman boxing troupe. Through the long shots and slow-paced editing, Paddy and Ed set up a makeshift boxing ring and go on till the evening fighting, sharing a pair of boxing gloves between them. The barriers of the ring almost protecting them from what is beyond it — this harsh world. They’re at peace, despite the climate around them, their camaraderie is strong but innocent.
In Muriel’s Wedding, similar to Paddy and Ed’s shared interest in boxing, Muriel and Rhonda share a love for ABBA, which is shown through a musical number where they perform “Waterloo”. Their music serves as an escape for Muriel, bringing her comfort whenever she is upset. Their lyrics reassure her that she isn’t nothing despite what the people around her say. Rhonda in fact is the only other person in the film who seems to share this love, as Muriel is often ridiculed for her adoration of the band. Her “friends” at the beginning of the film mock her for it, stating that no one listens to them and they also tease her clothes and personality.
From the beginning, Muriel is depicted as the awkward and unsuccessful young adult, living in the coastal town of Porpoise Spit with her three deadbeat siblings and parents. Her father, Bill (Bill Hunter) is a politician and constantly chastises her and her siblings — deeming them “useless.” Because of this, Muriel thinks very little of herself and holds this belief that marriage leads to success and happiness. But Rhonda assures her that she isn’t nothing and is the first person to convince Muriel of her self-worth.
It’s Rhonda’s support and her tight bond with Muriel that helps her flourish from the insecure woman she was to someone who is more self-assured. Muriel abruptly leaves her family to move to Sydney, where her and Rhonda share an apartment. But you can’t have too much of a good thing and eventually there is conflict between the two. This sudden change of lifestyle has caused Muriel to reject anything from her past and she makes the decision to change her name to “MarielRhonda is also diagnosed with spinal cancer and moves back to Porpoise Spit with her mother after Muriel neglects her to have an arranged marriage with a South African swimmer, in order for him to compete in the Australian Olympics.
It’s Rhonda’s support and her tight bond with Muriel that helps her flourish from the insecure woman she was to someone who is more self-assured. Muriel abruptly leaves her family to move to Sydney, where her and Rhonda share an apartment. But you can’t have too much of a good thing and eventually there is conflict between the two. This sudden change of lifestyle has caused Muriel to reject anything from her past and she makes the decision to change her name to “Mariel”. Rhonda is also diagnosed with spinal cancer and moves back to Porpoise Spit with her mother after Muriel neglects her to have an arranged marriage with a South African swimmer, in order for him to compete in the Australian Olympics.
Paddy and Ed’s friendship in September also strains, the familiar world they share takes a halt when a new law is passed that allows Indigenous labourers to be paid. This causes problems for Paddy’s father, Michael (Kelton Pell), who is employed by Ed’s father, Rick (Kiernan Darcy-Smith). Rick is unable to pay Michael and this ultimately affects Paddy and Ed. The differing lifestyles become clear, with Ed attending school and Paddy staying back to help his father and Rick at the sun baked wheat farm. But it’s the arrival of Ed’s new classmate, Amelia (Mia Wasikowska), that also becomes a factor in his friendship with Paddy straining.
Ed and Amelia continue to grow close, which leads to Ed convincing Paddy to join him on visiting her in the middle of the night. The bond between these two boys, however, completely ruptures when only Paddy is caught while Ed flees and never confesses to also being outside Amelia’s house. He and Paddy have a physical altercation and Ed’s father ultimately takes down their boxing ring — a symbol of the boy’s once inseparable friendship tarnished. It’s a moment of realisation for Paddy — that the world around them wouldn’t consider him and Ed as equals, despite the two treating each other as such. At the start of the film, the boys are constantly in unison and the camera positions them united as equals, particularly during a scene where they ride into town with their family. Paddy’s parents sit at the back of the truck with Ed’s parents in the front, but the two boys stand at the back together, centre-framed.
However, this moment of realisation signifies they’re coming of age. Paddy decides to join the Jimmy Sharman boxing troupe. It’s an act of defiance as he paints his own future, instead of meeting the expectation that he must stay back at the farm just like his father did.
The frequent focus around men and their close bonds in Australian cinema, has often led to women being treated as either disposable or detrimental to these bonds. The heterosexual romance eventually falters, and the inseparable friendship remains. The Australian ensemble films of the 70s and 80s such as Sunday Too Far Away and Gallipoli reinforced this idea of the homosocial bonds between men being unbreakable and the women serving as an obstacle. In September, despite Paddy and Ed’s fathers attempts to prevent the two boys from spending time with each other, they eventually reconcile and Amelia’s relationship with Ed crumbles. The two boys then to go their separate ways, with Paddy joining the troupe. They give each other a tearful goodbye — a warm embrace. Their bond is stronger than ever, but they’ve changed as individuals and their eyes are now wide open to the world around them.
Muriel’s Wedding has a similar ending of reconciliation. Muriel feels she has become a cold selfish person. She has always mirrored her mother, Tania (Sophie Lee); she would cower when someone spoke ill towards her, but she never said anything. This is similar to how her mother never bats an eyelash whenever her husband belittles her. But during the last act of the film, Muriel feels she has become like her father — conceited and mistreating those who love him. But she’s grown and her belief on marriage has evolved — she doesn’t need it to find happiness. She then ends her marriage and travels back to Porpoise Spit in hopes to reconcile with Rhonda and move back to Sydney with her.
“What makes you think I would go anywhere with you?” Rhonda asks, a scowl on her face. “Because I’m your friend,” Muriel replies. But the love the two have for one another is deeper than any romance and so together they ride out of Porpoise Spit in the same fashion of a romantic comedy. They cheerfully scream goodbye to the familiar beach, mall and residents they grew up around and look to each other with elation as they drive out of town — having found themselves and each other.
Both September and Muriel’s Wedding depict two very different examples of friendship, but they both reinforce this prominent theme in Australian cinema. These bonds are inseparable and shown to be stronger than any other romance.