P.J. Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding, and Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah are forged in the furnace of motherhood. Both films centre on characters deprived of the traditional, idealised notion of motherhood, in which a strong, caring mother successfully protects and nurtures her child to physical and emotional maturity. The central characters of Muriel’s Wedding and Samson and Delilah struggle to overcome the absence of this traditional mother figure, while others, such as Muriel’s mother and Delilah’s grandmother, labour to successfully don the responsibilities of motherhood. The dearth of this maternal block in the family foundation, so integral to familial development, leaves many characters with a chronic and deep-seated need for validation. In an attempt to replace the malnourished or non-existent family bonds, the titular characters form tightly bound relationships with non-family members to replace the mother figure they so desperately crave, and it is from these relationships they derive confidence and happiness.
Muriel’s obsession with marriage and the depressingly hopeless demeanour of the Heslop family in Muriel’s Wedding, can be directly attributed to the lack of a traditional mother figure. The children’s actions, or more accurately lack thereof, stem directly from Betty Heslop’s failure to not only conquer the trials of motherhood, but to even attempt them. From the first glimpse of Mrs Heslop standing alone in the kitchen looking emptily off-camera, she is painted as a woman worn down by the overbearing demeanour and derision of her husband, Bill Heslop. She spends her time disconnected from the present, eyes glazed over, perhaps dreaming of the marriage she wished she had, but judging by the utter vacancy of her stare, most probably thinking of nothing at all. She speaks only to absent-mindedly relay instructions, never displaying original thought. Her introductory scene, where she places an empty mug in a microwave in an attempt to make tea, succinctly captures her inability to perform even the most basic tasks of a traditional mother. Like her waterless cup of tea, she is empty, providing no nourishment or guidance. She exists purely as an object, not a person, providing little support to her children, except for her presence. While she may have once supported her children, Hogan only presents us with a woman who is now thoroughly depressed by the selfish manipulations of her husband.
Mrs Heslop’s rejection of motherhood is exacerbated by Bill Heslop’s complementary rejection of fatherhood. Rather than providing a firm, but fair, guiding hand, he is cruel and unforgiving, using his family to further his political career. He does not nurture his children, but derides them at the political dinners he drags them to in an effort to present himself as an ‘Aussie battler’ fighting for his family and his community. His family are scapegoats for his failures, most notably for not winning a seat in State government, which he makes devastatingly clear to his wife when he leaves the family for his mistress Deidre.
The absence of supportive parenting plays a major role in the immaturity displayed by the Heslop children. As Bill constantly declares, they are “lay-abouts”. This is embodied by his son Perry, who spends his days in front of the television, unshaven with dishevelled hair, not even pretending to look for a job. With every day free, Perry ignores the overgrown lawn despite his mother’s multiple requests for him to mow it. Interestingly, we never actually see her ask Perry, rather we learn of this through Bill and the youngest son Malcolm, underlining her unnoticed existence and by extension, her ineffectual role as a mother. “Why did Mum burn the lawn? Cause she got sick and tired of waiting for Perry to mow it.” Perry’s one moment of activity is a scene where with child-like enthusiasm he kicks a milk carton around the backyard, all the while providing a parody of a professional commentary heralding his glory. This behaviour demonstrates the effect of his mother’s emotional and supportive absence. He possesses none of the qualities of a functioning adult; he does not care for his appearance and lacks motivation and social skills. Mrs Heslop’s failure as a mother, due to Bill’s refusal to validate her as a mother or wife, is the root of the Heslop family’s problems.
Perry’s feckless and uninspiring behaviour is mirrored in all but one of the Heslop children, who suffer the same lack of guidance and mothering. The exception is Muriel, who achieves her dream despite the indifference of her mother, or the catty remarks of the other girls she erroneously considers her friends. This is largely due to the intensity of Muriel’s escapist fantasies and the active encouragement of Rhonda, a Porpoise Spit alumnus, whose friendship adopts many of the principles of motherhood. The combination of these two factors leads Muriel to take action, rather than remain stagnant and stewing in the family home. She moves to Sydney where she briefly dates Bryce, and eventually marries David, a handsome South African swimmer, in a lavish ceremony with media coverage. Although reluctant and accepting her hand only to gain Australian citizenship, he reverses his position and offers a loving relationship to her. Muriel is the one family member who succeeds in fulfilling her dream.
It is important to note, that Muriel’s obsession with marriage stems not from her desire to have a family, or to find the perfect husband, but to escape from the downtrodden and depressed atmosphere of her family and the town of Porpoise Spit. Marriage as a determinant of worth is wheedled and instilled into Muriel by the women surrounding her. Her Porpoise Spit ‘friends’ are extremely concerned with perceptions of their physical and social worth, and exclude Muriel from their group because she does not match their self-prescribed wild image and they have a reputation to maintain. The theme of marriage as a measure of value is compounded by Deidre, who replaces Muriel’s mother as her father’s love interest. A cosmetic saleswoman, she reiterates the idea that physical beauty and superficial changes in appearance attract men and validate a woman’s worth. Muriel, desperately wanting to break away from a dominating father and an emotionally absent mother, internalises this idea and believes that if she marries she will be able “to ‘escape’ the family” and more importantly, receive the proof that she does in fact matter. Lacking motherly guidance, Muriel escapes in the only way she knows; she moves to Sydney and herself through superficial changes to her clothing and name.
While motherhood is traditionally coupled with marriage, Muriel ignores this. She never mentions the possibility of children, is largely unconcerned with finding an emotionally supportive partner, and believes that the act of marriage itself will prove her worth to everyone else. Muriel views marriage as a source of validation, “…the lavish wedding [has a]… much more complicated and psychotherapeutic function in the life of the title character”; indeed, her focus on this outstrips any other aspect of the marriage. She demonstrates this by repetitively viewing Princess Diana’s wedding, playing it over and over at work. The scenes watched focus solely on the bride, totally ignoring the groom. In her bedroom in Porpoise Spit, Muriel’s walls are plastered with images of women garbed in bridal gowns, their husbands absent. She responds to David’s vague advertisement in the classifieds, ignoring Bryce, who actually has feelings for her and might provide the emotional support she seeks. On her wedding day she can barely contain herself, not because it is a good start to the rest of her life, but because it is like Diana’s wedding. Her manufactured, fairy-tale event fulfils her fantasy of ‘one-upping’ the girls of Porpoise Spit. David is a very attractive professional athlete in a sport especially revered in Australia, and after the wedding, with the media outside, she says to Rhonda, “I didn’t call them, they came crawling back to me. The way they picked on me in Porpoise Spit and here I am, famous, and they’re at my wedding.” However, once Muriel’s dream marriage is realised she recognises it cannot sate the validation she so chronically desires, or provide the emotional support she has not gained from her mother. “…Fulfilling her dream provides a boost to Muriel’s self esteem that she is able to be liberated from her old sense of self, embrace her individuality, and recognize in the end that she does not need a wedding, or for that matter, even a man.” It is then that Muriel returns to Rhonda to resume the relationship that had crossed from friendship into the realm of motherhood, and provides her with the validation and succour that her mother could not.
From the moment Muriel meets Rhonda on Hibiscus Island, Rhonda provides the emotional support and validation Muriel desires. On their first meeting, Muriel rejects Rhonda’s advances, but Rhonda persists, showing an interest beyond cursory glances or disdainful responses, truly valuing Muriel for who she is. Rhonda brutally rejects the friendship of the girls of Porpoise Spit, and brings Muriel, an outcast and ugly duckling, into her group. Her statement, “Oh by the way, I’m not alone, I’m with Muriel”, so forcefully delivered, wholeheartedly welcomes Muriel into a kind of family unit in which Rhonda is the mother figure. Hogan emphasises the change this brings in Muriel through the evolution of her obsession with ABBA. Muriel’s previous desultory, solitary renditions of ABBA in her bedroom are completely transformed when Rhonda joins Muriel in a public duet of the aptly named ‘Waterloo’. In a performance bearing the hallmarks of England’s victory over the seemingly invincible Napoleon, they almost become ABBA. They mimic the group’s choreography to the applause of the men accompanying the girls from Porpoise Spit. Together they do not reject Muriel’s personality, but glorify her difference. This signals a turn in Muriel’s sense of self-worth and Hogan masterfully expresses this as they don a pair of skin-tight, white outfits, contrasting the colourful, exaggerated clothing of the girls of Porpoise Spit. In this scene, we get a glimpse of the swan Muriel is to become under Rhonda’s maternal wing. Indeed ABBA, something intimately tied to her depression in Porpoise Spit, is removed from Muriel’s life “because now my life is as good as an ABBA song. It’s as good as ‘Dancing Queen’.”1 Afterwards, ABBA only remerges when Muriel’s relationship with Rhonda, her mother figure, is strained and her sense of self-worth is threatened.
Hogan’s choice to clothe Rhonda and Muriel in white conjures not just the image of two swans, but two brides, signalling their union and the support Muriel expected to find in her mother and her marriage. It is a bastardized version of her fantasy. It is not a heterosexual, traditional marriage, nor does it have sexual connotations, but Muriel has found a mother figure. Thus, Muriel’s Wedding is not “a simple-minded paean to heterosexual matrimonial bliss couched in the story of an ugly-duckling who makes good by making a good marriage… Rather, it’s a biting denunciation of the venality of a patriarchal society that spins the myths that keep women subjugated: the beauty myth, the myth of finding Mr. Right and living happily ever after, the myth that women’s worth is determined by the men she can attract.” Muriel eventually realises that “Marriage means the continuation of the dysfunctional patriarchal marriage.” the very thing that has ruined her mother and deprived Muriel of the support and love she needs. So, she willingly embraces Rhonda as a mother figure who helps nurture Muriel to maturity.
Rhonda’s role as a mother figure is especially depicted through Muriel’s love life. Originally nonexistent, “You’ve never even had a boyfriend”, it tentatively blossoms under Rhonda’s watchful eye. In a scene reminiscent of a teenage boy meeting a girl’s parents, Bryce must meet with Rhonda’s approval before Muriel is willing to accept the offer of a date. In her seemingly first sexual experience, Muriel’s awkwardness suggests an incomplete sexual education; guidance usually passed by a mother to her daughter. This scene recalls the lack of life skills shown by the other Heslop children due to the all but physical absence of their mother, and develops the idea that Muriel’s desire to marry is not a desire to find a so-called ‘Mr Right’ or to have a family, but to find a substitute source of love and validation. Muriel does not know how to interact with men, even though they are central to the realisation of her dream. After a date with Bryce, she makes a cup of tea and puts the television on, despite his obvious sexual intentions. When he pursues these intentions, she giggles uncontrollably, almost overwhelmed by her inexperience and the sudden, foreign rush of affection.
The totality of Rhonda’s replacement of Muriel’s mother is subtly depicted in the photographs that appear throughout the film. After Hibiscus Island, Muriel looks longingly at a photograph of Rhonda and herself bedecked in tropical flowers and smiling, evoking the feeling of a picture in a family album. When this is compared to Mrs Helsop’s album, the distance between Muriel’s mother and her children is thrown into stark relief. Muriel flicks past photos of her siblings to land on a mass of newspaper clippings of her wedding. Late and forgotten at the wedding, Muriel’s mother does not even possess the pictures one would expect of a child’s wedding. Instead, she read about the marriage, relegated to the same cursory knowledge as the Australian public. Shuffling these pictures aside, Muriel focuses on a lone picture of her mother, poignantly emphasising just how far removed Mrs Heslop had become from Muriel.
Importantly, Muriel reciprocates Rhonda’s maternal qualities when Rhonda is paralysed. Muriel bathes, cleans and feeds her; providing encouragement and support throughout Rhonda’s ordeal. However, with Rhonda unable to maintain her role as a mother figure, Muriel falters and relapses into her fantasy world. Bereft of guidance, she listens to ‘Dancing Queen’ and obsesses with marriage by trying on dresses in almost every bridal store in Sydney. Eventually, Muriel abandons Rhonda to fulfil her dream and marries David, but subsequently returns to Rhonda, rejecting “the myth that women’s worth is determined by the men she can attract.” Her return to Porpoise Spit, where Rhonda is reluctantly residing, allows us to see a similarity between Muriel’s and Rhonda’s mothers. Although more vocal, Rhonda’s mother similarly speaks only to parrot the girls of Porpoise Spit. She is unable to influence her child in any way and Rhonda leaves to resume her relationship with Muriel, ignoring her mother’s laughably weak resistance. Their relationship has extended well beyond friendship and into a nurturing motherly relationship. Muriel’s state of mind is “evident in the contrasting shots of her face as she travels by taxi at various points in the film. Returning from Hibiscus Island she is sunburnt, pimple-nosed and dowdy; leaving for Sydney with Rhonda at the end of the film she is delicately made-up, and glowing, with a beatific smile playing on her lips.” In this final scene, Rhonda is similarly demonstrating that their relationship has become a satisfying substitute for the mother they each crave.
Like Muriel’s Wedding, Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah focuses on two characters bereft of a traditional mother figure. It follows the struggles of the titular characters, two young aboriginals living in a remote indigenous community in central Australia, to overcome this absence, which, unlike Muriel’s Wedding, is physical as well as emotional. The effect of this absence is displayed through the differing characteristics of Samson and Delilah. While Delilah’s biological mother is never seen, Delilah does live with her grandmother, who provides some semblance of a mother figure. Delilah’s grandmother is interested in her welfare and paints with her each day. This traditional art operates as a kind of secondary mother figure, giving Delilah a sense of belonging and identity. Painting is a constant activity that can be relied upon to calm and nourish her sense of self, later demonstrated by her return to art while in Alice Springs. Her grandmother engages Delilah in conversation and, unlike Muriel’s mother, advises Delilah on how to find a husband. This combination of emotional nourishment and daily routine is reflected physically, in that both have enough to eat. The food may be bland, like Delilah’s daily routine, but combined with her grandmother’s motherly comfort and art, Delilah has the required physical and emotional nourishment to keep her healthy and apart from damaging activities, such as petrol sniffing. In contrast, Samson is adrift, entirely without a mother figure. He fills his days hungrily shuffling about the community, sniffing petrol to bring some relief from the monotony of life. Samson has an elder brother, but there is little interaction, despite Samson’s efforts. His brother’s sole action in the film is to play the same simple reggae song from sun up to sun down. It is a repetitive, voiceless, tiredly played tune; a limp and lifeless soundtrack to the film. It echoes the lifeless and ineffectual daily interaction of the Heslop family in Muriel’s Wedding, and resonates Rhonda’s mother’s weak attempt to stop her leaving for Sydney. The tune’s voiceless nature reflects Samson’s lack of familial bonds and his voiceless and feeble impact on the world. While reggae lyrics are usually cries for social or political justice, these are not, emphasising Samson’s separateness.
Sampson in particular, craves a relationship to substitute for the maternal bond he cannot form with his mother. This is shown in his repeated attempts to play in his brother’s band. His brother silently rejects him each time and consequently, he seeks respite from boredom and monotony by petrol sniffing. His choice of petrol is particularly telling of his position, as “Young people who become chronic, heavy inhalant abusers are also more likely to be those who are isolated from their families and community… This isolation can make it harder to keep in touch with the sniffer and encourage him or her to stop sniffing.” His growing addiction impairs his intelligence and his ability to speak. His inability to even utter his own name in the “Well, say something!” scene, powerfully emphasises the detrimental effect of his mother’s absence. Petrol becomes his mother, providing a warm, numbing blanket from the trials of the world. It is however, a twisted and damaging version of a mother-son relationship. Samson’s need to replace his missing mother has progressed to an actual physical disability. Samson searches for someone to replace his broken and malnourished familial bonds and finds salvation in Delilah, who in turn has become a substitute mother for her increasingly infirm grandmother, cleaning, feeding and medicating her. Despite Delilah’s repeated rejections of Samson, he wears her down and moves his sleeping gear into her compound.
Delilah’s acceptance of Samson comes with her grandmother’s death, because “Young female protagonists are often placed in situations in which they must take on adult responsibilities at an early age because of parental conflict, family breakdown”. Without a mother figure, she is blamed and beaten by the community for her grandmother’s death. Samson and Delilah’s consequent rejection of their community is manifested in a scene that crosscuts between the two characters as they “realize they must escape toxic family relationships and claustrophobic small towns in order to ‘dance their own steps’.” In a rush of action, Delilah burns a dot painting, while Samson showers for the first time in the film. These actions signify the burning and washing away of a community that has come to revile them. They steal the only working car, but even this last vestige of their community fails them. It breaks down outside Alice Springs, forcing them to walk. This breakdown mirrors the absence of their mother figures and the emotional nourishment they should have received from them. Samson and Delilah are also isolated from Australian society, partially by choice, wanting to return to their traditional way of life, but unable to do so, and partially by the attitudes of the wider Australian society, like the security guard who follows them in the supermarket. This lack of belonging and identity is poignantly depicted by the church standing empty in their community. The structure is there, but belief is not.
Delilah now turns fully to Samson as they share the same biological and cultural motherless existence. This is exhibited in her decision to walk to Alice Springs after the car breaks down. This scene underscores the crossroads Delilah faces. Filmed from side angle, Delilah is clearly presented with two options. Initially she walks homewards, but Thornton cuts to Samson pointing to the bright lights of Alice Springs. The lights frame his body, showing not only the promise of Alice Springs, but also the promise of happiness with him. Compared to the lightless road Delilah has begun walk down, the lights highlight the absolute lack of maternal and emotional validation available in their community.
The move to Alice Springs echoes Muriel and Rhonda’s move to Sydney. While Samson and Delilah do not find the satisfaction in Alice Springs that Muriel and Rhonda find in Sydney, it is there they become closer, providing each other with the maternal support they crave. Geography as a mother figure is highlighted, particularly in Samson and Delilah, due to the importance that land plays in Aboriginal culture. As Samson and Delilah remove themselves from the toxic environment of their original community, they find each other more clearly. In Alice Springs they are not inhibited by a community that does not care for them and can find strength in one another. Alice Springs becomes a testing ground of their care for each other, although Delilah more fully assumes the mantle of motherhood. Despite saying little, they provide each other with validation through small gestures of affection, such as Delilah’s kiss, which brings a rare light to Samson’s eyes through the foggy haze of petrol. However, living under an overpass, a symbol of modern Australia’s intrusion into their culture, they remain adrift from the maternal support of their traditions. Samson falls into severe addiction and Delilah is beaten, raped and eventually hospitalised after being hit by a car. With this, they return to their community and are cast out to Delilah’s traditional lands. Here, with her people’s land providing food and water, fulfilling the role of a mother, they are able to recreate the validation and protection Delilah felt when her grandmother was alive, and she was behind the protective fence of her dwelling. The happiness of the union is signaled when Samson’s brother’s band is played on the radio. But now the reggae music, like Muriel and Rhonda singing ABBA, is vibrant, performed with gusto and appreciated by others. The song has not changed, but the sense of self-worth has; Samson and Delilah now own their difference and their personality. They feel loved, supported and in an important sense, mothered. After the song finishes, we learn Samson’s father is coming home from prison, and judging by Samson’s sudden release of laughter, the bonds created with Delilah will be strengthened by his father’s presence.
Muriel’s Wedding is not a film that finds its resolution in the event suggested by the title, rather it, like Samson and Delilah, is a film about seeking a relationship that can validate, nurture, and instill a sense of self-worth. This is the fundamental role of a mother. Both films provide a strong commentary on motherhood, most notably through its physical or emotional absence. The significance of, and innate need for a strong maternal relationship is most powerfully demonstrated by Muriel, Samson, and Delilah’s yearning for the guidance, strength and support of a loving maternal figure. The absence of such a figure becomes the driving force in each character’s life. They seek to establish a substitute relationship, one that can provide the support and validation of a mother. These searches often prove unsuccessful, such as Muriel’s marriage to David and Samson’s petrol sniffing. But when Muriel and Rhonda, and Samson and Delilah do establish nurturing maternal-like relationships between themselves, they find validation and happiness. To find this happiness they must eschew the approbation of other characters, and forge a new healthy relationship not centred on themselves nor the perceptions of outsiders, but a relationship centred on their partner, just as a mother focuses on a child. By doing this they break the cycle of dependence, allowing them to mature emotionally and find happiness.
P.J. Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding, and Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah explore the importance and significance of a strong supporting maternal figure, by examining the difficulty their titular characters face in the absence of a supporting mother. Each character’s deep desire and need to reforge the bonds of a strong maternal relationship illustrates its fundamental importance in human life and endeavours. If such relationships cannot be established positively with a natural mother, then a replacement relationship is sought. In both films true happiness is only found when the warmth, love, support and strength of a maternal relationship is recreated elsewhere.
Muriel’s Wedding, Dir. P. J. Hogan, (1994).
Lealand, Geoffrey R. and Ben Goldsmith, Australia and New Zealand, (Intellect Books, 2010).
McAlister, Linda, Web. 15 Apr. 2013. <http://mith.umd.edu/WomensStudies/FilmReviews/muriels-wedding-mcalister>
O’Regan, Tom, Australian National Cinema, (Routledge, 1996).
Otnes, Cele C., and Elizabeth H. Pleck, Cinderella Dreams: the Allure of the Lavish Wedding (University of California Press, 2003).
Sloboda, Zili, Mario De La Rosa, and Nicholas Kozel, “Epidemiology of Inhalant Abuse: An International Perspective”, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Web. 12 Apr. 2013. <http://archives.drugabuse.gov/pdf/monographs/148.pdf>
Samson and Delilah Dir. Warwick Thornton, (2009).
Webster, Roger, Expanding Suburbia: Reviewing Suburban Narratives, (Berghahn Books, 2000)
 Muriel’s Wedding, Dir. P. J. Hogan, (1994).
 Muriel’s Wedding
 O’Regan, Tom, Australian National Cinema, (Routledge, 1996). Pg. 227
 Otnes, Cele C., and Elizabeth H. Pleck, Cinderella Dreams: the Allure of the Lavish Wedding (University of California Press, 2003). Pg. 186
 Muriel’s Wedding
 Otnes and Pleck, Pg. 188
 Muriel’s Wedding
 Muriel’s Wedding
 McAlister, Linda, Web. 15 Apr. 2013. <http://mith.umd.edu/WomensStudies/FilmReviews/muriels-wedding-mcalister>
 O’Regan, Pg. 227
 Muriel’s Wedding
 Lealand, Geoffrey R. and Ben Goldsmith, Australia and New Zealand, (Intellect Books, 2010). Pg. 174
 Sloboda, Zili, Mario De La Rosa, and Nicholas Kozel, “Epidemiology of Inhalant Abuse: An International Perspective”, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Web. 12 Apr. 2013. <http://archives.drugabuse.gov/pdf/monographs/148.pdf>
 Samson and Delilah Dir. Warwick Thornton, (2009).
 Lealand, and Goldsmith, Pg. 179
 Lealand, and Goldsmith, Pg. 179
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