The Neoliberal Heart of the 90s Romcom


In 1994, a small-budget film called Four Weddings and a Funeral made a floppy-haired, Oxford-educated actor a star. From this moment on, Hugh Grant was established as the quintessential posh Englishman, an Everyman for the affluent. Over the course of the 1990s and early aughts, his star rose with such films as Notting Hill (1999), Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), and Love Actually (2003). Each, like Four Weddings, was directed by the similarly Oxford-educated Richard Curtis; indeed, Curtis clung onto Grant until About Time, filmed in 2013, when time had, at last, caught up with his once baby-faced star.

In a transatlantic pop culture vein, Curtis and Grant represented the British deputation in matters of the heart. This interest was encapsulated by contemporaneous films such as When Harry Met Sally (1989), My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), and The Wedding Singer (1998), newly dubbed “romantic comedies,” or, more properly, “romcoms.” The portmanteau is significant: though their formulaic meet-cute plots have affinities with earlier “romantic” comedies such as the Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant vehicle Bringing Up Baby (1939), and the sunnier comedies of Shakespeare, “romcoms” depart notably from these precedents. In 1995, Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1599) was filmed by Kenneth Branagh and billed as a romantic comedy, but the play’s interest in social and cultural concepts such as gender, identity, and honor distinguish it from romcoms of the 1990s, which were fascinated (to the exclusion of almost everything else) with their characters’ inner lives. Most fascinating of all are deemed the processes through which the protagonists come to decisions about their feelings, often long unrealized. “Michael, I love you,” cries Julia Roberts as Julianne in My Best Friend’s Wedding. “I’ve loved you for nine years. I’ve just been too arrogant and scared to realize it.”

Though Branagh valiantly attempted to repackage The Bard for the romcom age, the genre’s peculiar focus on the minutiae of romantic inner lives made it a far more natural fit for another canonical English writer. In 1995, Pride and Prejudice was broadcast in an epic BBC TV adaptation. As the comparatively unknown Colin Firth emerged sodden from his Pemberley Lake as Mr. Darcy, he watered the seeds of a thousand “I heart Mr. Darcy” tote bags and a whole Jane Austen spin-off industry. He was assisted by the many further filmic takes on Austen that punctuated the 90s. Ang Lee released his own version of Sense and Sensibility, starring Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson (who wrote the film’s screenplay), the same year. In 1996, Hollywood offered three different versions of Emmaone starring Gwyneth Paltrow, one with Kate Beckinsale, and the third starring Alicia Silverstone in the Beverly Hills-based Clueless. Austen was in the air.

Written at the turn of the nineteenth century, Austen’s novels are often linked with the rise of Romanticism. However, they spring more directly from the eighteenth-century tradition of the so-called “seduction novel,” by writers including Samuel Richardson, which explore the psychology of women’s relationships with frequently untrustworthy men (Richardson’s Clarissa was serialized by the BBC in 1991, an unsuccessful early attempt at the costume-drama romcom formula). This tradition in turn can be said to spring from the work of the seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke. In 1689, Locke wrote that the human mind should be considered a “‘white paper’… void of any characters, without any ideas.” For Locke, there could be no pre-conceived “truths.” The mind rather acquires its “characters” through “sensation,” “reflection,” “observation,” and “experience.” In the century that followed, Locke’s ideas, now recognized as British empiricism, inflected theories about rearing children and the gradual development of companionate marriage. Increasingly, young people were freed from arranged alliances based on dynastic concerns in favor of the freedom to choose a partner following “reflection” on the state of their own hearts.

This last pursuit is modeled by Elinor Dashwood in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811). “At first sight,” Elinor observes of her future husband Edward Ferrars, “his address is certainly not striking; and his person can hardly be called handsome.” However, “I know him so well, that I think him really handsome; or, at least, almost so.” With her mind thus free of preconceived ideas, Elinor is able to respond to increased acquaintance, and impressions that transcend what is seen “at first sight,” to arrive at the deceptively understated conclusion that “I greatly esteem, that I like him.” Austen’s later Pride and Prejudice (1813) partly hinges—as its title suggests—around the pitfalls of insufficient self-examination, or of dependence on preconceived ideas, on this score. “How earnestly,” Austen writes of her heroine, on the point of securing her father’s consent to her marriage to the formerly loathed Mr. Darcy, “did she then wish that her former opinions had been more reasonable, her expressions more moderate! It would have spared her from explanations and professions which it was exceedingly awkward to give.”

“Awkwardness” becomes the defining feature of Richard Curtis’s films, and the tone of all his films is set in the first half hour. A freshly love-struck Hugh Grant (“Charles”) stumbles first into, and then decisively out of, a car taking him off to a wedding after party. “Right. Odd decision,” he says, as he walks back to his picturesque Somerset hotel. He doesn’t quite know what he’s doing, but he knows he’ll find Andie MacDowell there. Later, she will draw from him one of the film’s most famous declarations, the excruciating two-minute confession that, “in the words of David Cassidy […] while he was still with the Partridge family, ‘I think I love you.’” The thousands of viewers who search it out on YouTube squirm along with him, nursing a sense of what a German speaker might call fremdschämen: the feeling of reflexive embarrassment experienced on behalf of someone else. Fremdschämen, or something like it, was something of a Western obsession during the 1990s and aughts, and Hugh Grant was its crown prince. Even in an eighteenth-century cravat, playing Elinor Dashwood’s Edward Ferrars opposite Thompson, he deviates, painfully, from an apparent marriage proposal to an (ostensibly) unrelated, stilted description of his education in Plymouth. Thompson apparently wrote the script with Grant in mind, and, indeed, there is much more of Four Weddings than of Austen in his Ferrars.

The official musical accompaniment to Four Weddings was “Love Is All Around,” a cover by Wet Wet Wet of the 1964 hit, perhaps better known by its first line, “I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes.” Unlike The Troggs’s original, which debuted in the winter after the Summer of Love, the Wet Wet Wet version sees lead singer Marti Pellow savoring each note like a gooey toffee. The orchestration swells around him as he croons to a climactic chorus, which also betrays a certain adherence to the traditions of Lockean empiricism: “You know I love you, I always will. / My mind’s made up by the way that I feel.” Repeated till fade out is the appeal for reciprocation: “So if you really love me, come on and let it show.”

Letting it show, however, depends on understanding exactly what “it” is—whether those feelings in your fingers and in your toes are love, or merely paraesthesia. A struggle for Charles, this was also perceived to be a challenge for the many heroines of eighteenth-century novels of seduction, stumbling awkwardly into the new context of companionate marriage with nothing but their impressionable hearts to help them distinguish rakes like Sense and Sensibility’s Willoughby from worthy husbands. Just as Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding was, for nearly a decade, “too arrogant and scared,” so too romantic mistakes can hinge on a failure of self-knowledge. But the logic of the Hollywood romcom insists that the protagonist must always acquiesce to Marti Pellow’s climactic demand for complete self-examination resulting in an outpouring of feeling. Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) expresses this best at the end of When Harry Met Sally, when he tells Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) that, “I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”

The American Harry has an elegance and clarity of expression to which Curtis’s Charles cannot, alas, aspire. As noted by the New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin, the defining characteristic of Grant in Four Weddings is that he is “both suave and hapless,” and “[e]verything about him suggests that years of breeding and education have produced not a single advantage beyond the ability to look delightful in a morning coat.” This haplessness manifests itself in a well-spoken social awkwardness around women, epitomized by the declaration to Andie McDowell’s Carrie, which is also given a clear national identity. When he asks in Four Weddings whether men exist who can “go up and say ‘Hi, babe, name’s Charles, this is your lucky night?’” the reply, from his Scottish friend (John Hannah) is: “Well, if there are, they’re not English.” “Englishness” here is seen to be a fitting context for awkward self-examination, associated as it is with the constricting conventions of class and manners, and the Lockean tradition itself. By contrast, the American Carrie is so unfettered by these conventions she can flit across the Atlantic with no explanation and few clear motivations. Grant’s character’s attempt to cling on to something of this detachment is part of what makes his David Cassidy moment so humiliating. The raw emotion is wrapped in a misjudged envelope of classic English irony, which ultimately only emphasizes its urgency.

Though this pointedly eccentric vision of Englishness was undoubtedly one part of the appeal of Four Weddings, its subject was another. In the 1990s, love was all around, at least in the market, and both Richard Curtis and Hugh Grant built careers on it. Curtis even reused “Love Is All Around” in later work, first in a 1994 episode of The Vicar of Dibley, and in more extended form in Love Actually (2003). Here, Bill Nighy, playing aging pop star Billy Mack, replaces “love” with “Christmas” in a cynical bid for the Christmas number one hit. The switch cements the film’s message that the two are, actually, equivalent, but it also looks back to Curtis’s triumph with Four Weddings, in just one of the film’s many moments of (empirical) self-awareness.

The 90s romcom, and Richard Curtis’s romcom in particular, reflected a contemporaneous political mood, which has become synonymous with the last decades of the twentieth century, but (like Austen) has roots stretching back to the eighteenth. The year after Austen’s birth in 1775, Adam Smith published his Lockean meditation on the market, The Wealth of Nations. When Four Weddings came out, Bill Clinton had just became the first Baby Boomer President of the United States—his campaign strategist James Carville having coined the campaign catchphrase “The economy, stupid.” The high tide of the romcom persisted up to (and beyond) the landslide election of Tony Blair, Clinton’s great British admirer, in 1997. Under them, the market ruled. Curtis’s films avoid any tackily overt allusions to money, but in Four Weddings Old still juts, winking, against New. Tommy, scion of “one of the richest families in England” notes the financial ascent of “that Branson chap,” and the brash George, squatting in an armchair at the Jolly Boatman, scoffs at university, preferring the poetry of The Wealth of Nations to Romanticism (“When you work in the money markets, what use is Wordsworth?”). By the wearier fin-de-siècle, the period of Notting Hill, the market has begun edging into the domain of plot, as we make the small but significant social step downwards from landed privilege towards the upper-middle classes. Grant’s friend Tony opens and has to close a restaurant; Grant’s own character, Will, runs a failing bookshop, and another friend, Bernie, is fired from his job as a stockbroker. But Will owns his West London house, having bought it with his ex-wife in the flush of an affordable housing market, as did the “Notting Hill Set” of the 2010 Conservative (coalition) government: David Cameron, Michael Gove, George Osborne, and Ed Vaizey.

The filmic rise of Richard Curtis in Britain, like that of the transatlantic romcom more generally, overlaps quite neatly with the burgeoning neoliberal project of the 1990s, as it built on the pioneering program established by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, cemented by Reagan from 1981, and repackaged as the “Third Way” by Clinton and Blair. As defined by Charles Peters in the 1983 A Neoliberal’s Manifesto, neoliberalism, like love, is a project dependent on making one’s mind up (as Marti Pellow has it) “by the way that I feel.” It is a project “at once pragmatic and idealistic,” wrote Peters. “In our search for solutions that work, we have come to distrust all automatic responses, liberal or conservative.” Arguing that the neoliberal “no longer automatically favor[s] unions and big government, or oppose[s] the military and big business,” Peters imagined his ideal politician as an evidence-based pragmatist, swayed not by “paper credentials,” but rather by “demonstrated ability to perform.” In his 1996 manifesto, Tony Blair’s was more succinct: “What counts is what works.” Freedom was the mantra: freedom of choice, freedom of the market and free trade, but perhaps most essentially, freedom of the individual, for, as Thatcher famously put it, “there is no such thing as society” but only “individual men and women.” Each must “look after ourselves” and only then must they “look after [their] neighbor.”

The Curtis romcom initially models this individualistic ethos in the field of the heart, where humankind must also be both pragmatic and idealistic. However, the Hugh Grant character has his own moment of political apotheosis in 2003. In Love Actually, he is finally elected Prime Minister, presumably with a mandate to open up the markets and spearhead a moderate Blairite redistribution. In a knowing and postmodern twist, Grant thus becomes the ultimate representative of the British people—as to many he already was. However, it is an unlooked-for feature of that postmodernism that this election should have come when it did. Earlier in 2003, an estimated two million people in Britain had marched in futile protest against the invasion of Iraq initiated by George W. Bush and supported by Downing Street’s then actual incumbent, Tony Blair. Futile, because, as the people watching Love Actually that Christmas did not yet know, Blair considered the war a matter of individual conscience, rather than political representation. He had already promised Bush, borrowing the phraseology of the romcom script, “I will be with you, whatever.”

At least from what we can see in Love Actually, as Prime Minister Hugh Grant also places the freedom of the individual (heart) at the center of political policy. Until 2003, Curtis had consistently placed Grant opposite an American. After the mysterious Carrie of Four Weddings, Hugh Grant falls for Julia Roberts, Notting Hill’s apparently unattainable Hollywood film star. In Love Actually the love interest for a British Prime Minister is Natalie (Martine McCutcheon) from “the dodgy end” of Wandsworth. Yet the slick and intimidating American remains: embodied by Billy Bob Thornton, he is the American President himself. When, then, we hear Hugh Grant stammer in a press conference, with reference to his Atlantic antagonist, that “I fear this has become a bad relationship,” we are to understand that he is speaking not about romantic relationships, but rather about the Anglo-American “Special Relationship,” first so named in 1946 by Winston Churchill. “We may be a small country,” Grant’s Prime Minister continues, “but we’re a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham’s right foot.” In a neat plot twist, actual Prime Minister David Cameron repeated a version of this speech in 2013, in St. Petersburg.

However, the lines Hugh Grant speaks are not, actually, about political relationships. The dispute between the two politicians concerns not invasions, or trade deals, or the future of the neoliberal path in the context of the “Third Way,” but Natalie from Wandsworth, whom Billy Bob Thornton, an unsettling Dubya-Clinton hybrid, has previously been caught harassing. The fact that politics should intersect so neatly (if misogynistically) with what Richard Curtis calls “love actually” recalls Marti Pellow’s announcement that, “My mind’s made up by the way I feel.” The personal is political, to the extent that politics itself can be effectively effaced with no detrimental effects. International trade agreements can be won or lost based on who looks at whom, when; the gut feeling controls the free market. There is, then, an ironic fittingness to the equivalence Love Actually draws, between the mass consumerism of a Western Christmas, overseen by the aging pop star seeking a crass last hit, and love itself.

The dominance of the market in matters of the heart was familiar to Jane Austen, whose Bennett and Dashwood sisters are well aware of their poverty, and the resultant need to think financially when making a match. Though Austen’s implicit feminism is often commended, this need to strike a good bargain extends also to her men. Sense and Sensibility’s Willoughby finds himself hard-up and chooses to desert Marianne Dashwood for a Miss Grey with fifty thousand pounds—a mercenary, yet practical, line to take in a competitive marriage market. In the 1995 retellings of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, it is presumably to be understood that such concerns are the natural result of the backwards world of curls and corsets, and therefore irrelevant in Richard Curtis’s milieu of upper-middle class, shabby-chic homes implausibly close to central London. However, the proliferation of Austen adaptations running concurrently with the Curtis romcom seems to speak to a collective unconscious in all his films, and to the 1990s romcom as a whole. Though the protagonists may not make their romantic decisions on explicitly financial concerns, they all operate within a neoliberal market economy, deciding how best to dispose of themselves, through careful examination of the heart.

In Four Weddings, after his disastrous David Cassidy declaration, petrol fuel and smoke still heavy in the air, Charles deadpans to Carrie, “I thought it over a lot, you know, I wanted to get it just right.” Four Weddings forces Charles to languish in the memory of these and other social embarrassments, but Curtis’s most recent film, written in the wake of the 2008 crash, takes “thinking things over” to new heights. In About Time, Domhnall Gleeson (“Tim”) discovers that he (along with all the men in his family) can travel in time and change the past. Inevitably, this becomes a way to control the social embarrassments brought on by the world around him and since (as he tells us) “it was always going to be about love,” this means specifically controlling its women. Fine-tuning words and inflections until he gets his seduction patter exactly right, Tim follows on from Grant in focusing on the primacy of individual feelings, even as he robs his American love interest (Rachel McAdams) of her right to freedom of choice by gaming the market.

Shot through with the fears of loss and tragedy in addition to its incipient misogyny, About Time is an altogether more anxious film than its 90s predecessors, and it, too, is a product of its time. More so than the nostalgia of Love Actually, it speaks of a world both fallen and fading—over which neoliberal men still, desperately, seek control.


Feature image via Creative Commons.

Kirsten Tambling is inching towards a PhD in French and British eighteenth-century art at Birkbeck, University of London. She has previously compared the eighteenth century with the Beach Boys for The Inkling, and her exhibition reviews are also scattered across the Internet. She was co-editor, with Laura Seymour, of Poems Underwater, an art and poetry anthology about mermaids. More from this author →