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Rewind: 1993 in Film – Mrs. Doubtfire

When we look back at Mrs. Doubtfire, we undoubtedly remember one thing above all others; its glorious humour. The sublime and Golden Globe Award-winning performance of Robin Williams as the desperate father turned Scottish housemaid has stood the test of time, particularly after his untimely passing in 2014. With several iconic and downright hilarious moments (who can ever forget that impromptu cake mask?), the film remains as wickedly funny as it was 26 years ago.

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But upon rewatching Mrs. Doubtfire, there’s an element to this film that never quite receives the kudos it deserves. Beneath its humorous surface lies a piece of cinema that’s a genuinely poignant portrait of divorce and the effect the fracturing of a family has on all involved. It’s the real beating heart of this film and one that captured the cultural zeitgeist of the time.

Despite divorce rates rapidly rising in America, the topic was still relatively taboo in early 1990s cinema. While it had been the subject of several prominent films over the years, divorce was often portrayed as something shameful and sinful, particularly in its portrayal of parents who seemingly gave up on their marriages and their children. Just look at the way Meryl Streep’s character is initially painted as the villain of Kramer vs. Kramer.

“Beneath its humorous surface lies a piece of cinema that’s a genuinely poignant portrait of divorce.”

The inescapable fact with all marriages is sometimes they simply fall apart, no matter how much love there may be between the parents and their children. The notion of sticking it out for the benefit of the children no longer held much credence in 1990s America and Mrs. Doubtfire never shies away from tackling this idea head-on.

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When we first meet Daniel (Williams) and Miranda Hillard (Sally Field), it’s clear Miranda has been following that very path for too long. She’s stayed in a fractured relationship for the sake of her kids, which all finally implodes when Daniel’s lack of parental discipline cause her to bring an end to their marriage. But the film never once demonises Miranda for this decision. We get it completely.

It’s abundantly clear to an audience Daniel is the fun parent who never says no to his kids. He’s their pal, not their father. This places enormous pressure on Miranda to be the hard taskmaster and the only one invested in providing discipline and structure to her children’s lives. It’s hardly surprising she asks Daniel for a divorce.

From here, the film obviously takes a gloriously hilarious turn after Daniel concocts a daring scheme to transform into an elderly Scottish woman so he can secretly serve as the nanny to his three young children, Lydia (Lisa Jakub), Chris (Matthew Lawrence), and Natalie (Mara Wilson). But it’s a plan born from tremendous pain that highlights just how devastating divorce can be, particularly on the spouse who didn’t enact the separation.

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The film’s portrait of the children is particularly striking by way of showing how divorce can affect kids in wildly different ways. Lydia takes the divorce especially hard, causing her to lash out at her mother and the nanny she sees as entirely unnecessary. Chris retreats and immediately puts up walls between himself and their new caretaker. And poor young Natty is far too young to understand why her entire world is seemingly collapsing, with every bit of devastating confusion conveyed on her adorable little face.

“What the Mrs. Doubtfire disguise ultimately provides Daniel is an insight into his wife’s frustration and disappointment.”

The paltry visitation time Daniel is given with his children is destroying him. He aches to spend more time with his children and the fact he will go to such outlandish tactics to be there with them is ultimately the manifestation of that very pain. It’s also from behind the make-up and rubber mask that he’s able to witness firsthand how his children are in just as much anguish over the divorce as their seemingly absent father. But their new nanny’s presence proves to be entirely what the children need to mend their broken hearts and adjust to their new lives.

But what the Mrs. Doubtfire disguise ultimately provides Daniel is an insight into his wife’s frustration and disappointment with the way her husband immaturely acted during their marriage. He’s able to see his personal failings and how they eventually destroyed their relationship. And by becoming the mature disciplinarian and guardian he had long avoided, he becomes the father he never was.

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Cleverly hidden beneath an uproarious comedy, it’s this earnest and intimate portrait of divorce that makes Mrs. Doubtfire such a progressive film that clearly arrived too early to be appreciated for more than just its laughs. It removed the demonisation of divorce by showing that sometimes it can actually be the wisest decision two people can make. By making people laugh, this taboo topic became entirely palatable.

“The film doesn’t shy away from showing the debilitating pain such tremendous change divorce can cause to a once-stable family environment.”

Sure, the film doesn’t shy away from showing the debilitating pain such tremendous change divorce can cause to a once-stable family environment. But it concludes by highlighting how beneficial such a difficult decision can ultimately be. And no better is that evident than in the film’s gorgeous closing monologue, delivered by Daniel/Mrs. Doubtfire from a place of acceptance and contentment, as the nanny offers advice to a letter from a young girl struggling with the divorce of her parents.

“You know, some parents when they’re angry, they get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time, and they can become better people, and much better Mummys and Daddies for you. And sometimes, they get back together. And sometimes, they don’t. And if they don’t, don’t blame yourself, dear.

Just because they don’t love each other anymore doesn’t mean that they don’t love you. There are all sorts of different families. Some families have one Mummy. Some families have one Daddy or two families. Some children live with their Uncle or Aunt. Some children live with their grandparents.

And some live in separate homes in separate neighbourhoods in different areas of the country, and they may not see each other for days, weeks, months, or even years at a time. But if there’s love, dear, those are the ties that bind, and you’ll have a family in your heart forever. All my love to you, poppet. You’re going to be alright.”

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