Wayne Blair’s latest film, Top End Wedding, stars Miranda Tapsell (The Sapphires) as Lauren, a brilliant and newly made law associate, and Gwilym Lee (fresh off his turn as Brian May in Bohemian Rhapsody ) as Ned, her fiancé. In the event of their recent engagement (a ring, a dog, a slight note of desperation: ”Will you marry me?” wins out against “Don’t hate me, I quit my job”), the couple leave their metropolitan life in (R)adelaide to get married in Lauren’s hometown of Darwin.
However, their arrival in Darwin is not what Lauren expected. Her father, Trevor (Huw Higginson, hilarious) is in depression mode: dressed to the nines in a matching blue pyjama set, house amuck, with dried tear tracks stained on his face. Lauren’s mother, Daphne (Ursula Yovich) has disappeared, with nothing more than a sticky note goodbye message of “I’m sorry”, and a need to go at it alone for a while, for her husband. Determined not to get married without her mum present, Lauren and Ned go on a journey around Australia’s top end to find her.
Top End Wedding’s strength lies in its great performances, and the cast have tremendous chemistry, with side-acts Shari Sebbens (The Sapphires, The Heights), Elaine Crombie, and Dalara Williams as Lauren’s very own Greek Chorus of supportive and wise-cracking best friends Ronelle, Dana and Kailah (respectively), and Kerry Fox as Lauren’s hard-won and determined boss. The real stand out, though, is Miranda Tapsell. Her comedic chops were a force to be reckoned with in Wayne Blair’s last film The Sapphires (2012) as the spunky Cynthia, and her supporting role in the Aussie drama series Love Child (2014–2017), which earned her two Logies. More than ready for a leading role, Tapsell feels born to play Top End Wedding’s Lauren as an Elle Woods-esque lead chock-full of charisma and energy. Tapsell belongs in a romantic comedy, as do the stories of Aboriginal women, whose desires have seldom been shown in such a positive and embracing way on screen.
Written by Tapsell and Joshua Tyler, the film hits all the rom-com beats, catalysed by the initial cheesy double whammy, where the clumsy yet endearing and capable lead gets the big promotion and proposal in the one day. There’s a co-ordinated dance routine at the club; a team-up and tool-up of bridesmaids and a Cruella De Vil boss to plan the wedding last minute; a momentary suspension of belief in the name of romance (with a secluded picnic in the middle of a gorge in Katherine—how are you making eggs benedict out of nowhere?). Full of quirks and laughs, like all good rom-coms, Top End Wedding will warm your heart. At a Q&A in Sydney, Tapsell told the audience her love of Nora Ephron inspired her for the film. Ephron’s influence is present in the cleverness of the film’s comedy, and more specifically in one particular subplot, which involves the withholding of a secret which threatens to blow (see: You’ve Got Mail ). But all of Top End Wedding’s clichés are not to the film’s detriment. If anything, they are welcome and a comfort. These beats are what we love about and expect from a rom-com, so it feels only natural that we see them here. Yet, Top End Wedding is not your regular Road-Trip to Save The Wedding romantic comedy. This is more than that. This is a film about homecoming.
Lauren cannot get married unless she is home, surrounded by her friends and family and the land that raised her. Her mother, Daphne, ran away because her own wedding had none of those things. Her daughter’s wedding isn’t the reason for her fleeing this time round: she’s run away from Darwin before the news could even reach her. Instead, what Daphne felt was a pull — a pull towards her home on the Tiwi Islands, a place she had not been to since she eloped with Trevor on the mainland. The duality between Daphne and Lauren’s stories makes this film a homecoming — a return to country — for mother as much as daughter.
The clandestine elopement of Daphne and Trevor is a little under-explored, but this is easily forgiven: with a simple leitmotif of Chicago’s ‘If You Leave Me Now’, there is no confusion nor doubt — their love is real. It’s a smart trick, and you’re guaranteed a laugh whenever Trevor locks himself in his pantry to cry in solitude to the sweet, sweet mournful sounds of late 70s ‘mom rock’ on repeat from a busted radio. Yet with each time the music plays, the song develops a kind of pavlovian association with devotion.
Top End Wedding is a freaking delight, with a lot of heart. And that’s the focus here: heart. ‘If You Leave Me Now’ becomes a running gag that connects Trevor to Daphne, but Aboriginal culture — the language and music of the Tiwi Islands — connect Daphne to Lauren. The film decides not to make an overt point about its Indigenous cultures. Instead, the languages, customs, and the homecoming are all weaved in intricately and without obtusely glorified invitation. During the flyover map which is oh so typical of romantic comedies (very Sleepless in Seattle ) the country isn’t divided by states, but by Indigenous Australian nation groups.
Much like in his 60s musical The Sapphires, Wayne Blair proves he is an emotionally attuned filmmaker. Blair’s eye for detail knows when to emphasise a moment, to keep the charm coming. He is aware of the codes and conventions that the rom-com genre demands, and blends them seamlessly into the Australian landscape, punctuating them with an Indigenous flair. I can only scratch the surface of the emotional nuance of this film, matched deftly by its joy and humour. Blair controls it masterfully. This story of an Aboriginal lawyer falling in love, and coming home to her Tiwi country and heritage, fits in effortlessly with the rom-com genre. It’s natural; it belongs in front of the camera. Always was and always will be.
Top End Wedding is now playing in Australian cinemas.
Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen screen tragic from Melbourne, Australia. She is currently undertaking an Honours thesis in Screen Studies and has written for Junkee, 4:3, The Big Issue, Screen Queens and more. Follow her at @teencineteq and @theclairencew.