Jonathan Demme sadly passed away last week. The storied director left behind him an eclectic and accomplished body of work which includes indelible and iconic movies such as The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia—films which gripped the world’s imagination and displayed the man’s undeniable craft, but which nevertheless remain secondary in his oeuvre.
At least for me.
For me there is only one Prime Demme: 2008’s Rachel Getting Married.
Which, holy shit!—how is that almost a decade ago?!
I never did see Rachel Getting Married in the cinema, but I had it recommended to me by a friend who did. Yes, the movie was about a wedding, he said. He added that it was more than that. That it wasn’t just about a wedding; here was a movie that was fully inside it. That the darkened cinema was another room in the sprawling Connecticut home that plays host to the nuptials, the fellow cinema-goers other guests, friends of the family. Jonathan Demme’s movie managed to completely immerse you in its events. And Anne Hathaway? he said finally. She lit up the screen, moved across it like I wouldn’t believe.
Well, I rewatched Rachel Getting Married after hearing of Jonathan Demme’s death and I still barely believe. Hathaway really is something to behold. But though she shines bright she does not overwhelm, and the movie’s merit lies in the totality of its parts; in the luminescent firmament made up of Declan Quinn’s roving handheld camera, Jenny Lumet’s naturalistic, empathetic screenplay, and Jonathan Demme’s warm direction of it all.
There’s just something about the way Demme and Anne Hathaway bring Hathaway’s Kym—sister to the titular Rachel, recovering drug addict, and on-and-off resident of rehab programmes for the past decade—careening back into her family’s life on such an already resonant day. The house bubbles with activity as a vast armada of friends bustle about setting everything up; the large proportion of them who are musicians practicing; and everyone reacting in various ways to Kym’s arrival. That last bit is crucial. Though the movie is called Rachel Getting Married in many ways it could have been called Kym Arrives. Or at least that might have been the case had a lesser director taken hold of the reins, for Demme makes sure never to forget Kym’s predilection for making everything about herself—and to both indulge and to frustrate her impulse in his telling of Lumet’s story. Ostensibly we are on this journey with Kym, but by adroitly giving weight to everyone’s concerns and emotions, Rachel Getting Married lets us absorb a rich tapestry of perspectives. Everyone here matters, and that aforementioned camera work is a wonderful tool in conveying this. Handheld cameras can be a horrible nuisance. Too often used in the hope of granting an unearned shortcut to intimacy, they often succeed only in causing nausea or a poverty of spatial clarity—or both. Employed judiciously, however, and they can make an emotionally charged script leap to urgent life. It’s no surprise to say that Demme’s movie is an example of the latter.
A special moment in the movie is when we first see Kym and Rachel meet. We instinctively feel the full weight of Kym’s return. She may well be the kind of person that one could class as a black sheep but the movie never treats her as anything less than a fully rounded, if deeply flawed, person. Rachel is human too; all-too conscious of Kym’s flaws but somewhat blind to a few of her own. Seeing the two reunited is to see a sisterly bond shot through with deep love, but also with anger, jealously, and regret. There is a wealth of history that is slowly unearthed as the movie goes on, but we feel almost all of it, bubbling underneath the surface, upon that first meeting. That’s thanks to the writing, but it’s also thanks to Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt, who carry this movie. Rachel Getting Married’s ensemble cast is a sprawling one, as it needs to be. It includes the wonderful Bill Irwin as the girls’ loving and forgiving (probably too forgiving) father, Anna Deavere Smith as the step-mother who carefully and empathetically walks the fine line a step-parent must in a loaded situation such as this, Debra Winger as the looming presence of their biological mother, and Tunde Adebimpe (of TV on the Radio) fame as the gentle groom. At the centre of this, Hathaway and DeWitt, the two sisters; smiling, laughing, crying, raging—in short cycling through the full spectrum of emotion that comes with simply having to deal with existing in each other’s’ orbits, for better and for worse.
Any assessment of Rachel Getting Married cannot go by without a mention of the character of the wedding. By which I mean the incredibly ethnically diverse nature of it. That house in Connecticut to which we are invited positively teems with a display of humanity of a bountifully wide variety of appearance. The movie doesn’t note this or preach about it. It just shows it. And there’s something quietly subversive about that. You remember that reactionary ‘this is the future liberals want’ campaign? Rachel Getting Married could be seen as a low-key, loving riposte to it. Because it is loving. The movie as a whole is exactly that, and despite all the drama and darkness and pain and loathing on display in this family’s coming together, by the end of it all it is the eruptions of joy and love that matter: They embrace the darkness and drive it out, not by denying it, but by acknowledging and accepting it as part of the whole.
(And, yes, that is Bucky up there in that header pic.)