Synopsis: Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) is the world’s most famous movie star. Her picture has been plastered on the cover of every magazine, and every time she makes a movie, the entire world knows about it.
William Thacker (Hugh Grant) owns a travel bookstore in the quaint neighborhood of Notting Hill. His business is stagnant, he has the roommate from hell and his love life is completely nonexistent.
Then one day, their paths cross and the couple comes to face the ultimate question: can two people fall in love with the whole world watching?
Notting Hill 9.0
eyelights: the witty screenplay. the chemistry between Roberts and Grant. its quirkiness. the supporting players.
eyesores: the belief-defying turns of events.
William: “I live in Notting Hill. You live in Beverly Hills. Everyone in the world knows who you are, my mother has trouble remembering my name.”
Anna Scott: “I’m also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.”
‘Notting Hill’ is a romantic 1999 comedy starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. It was one the biggest grossing films of the year, raking in over 350 million dollars, globally, and ended up being nominated for and winning a number of awards, including the BAFTA Audience Award for Most Popular Film.
It’s the story of an English bookshop owner who happens to cross path with one of the most popular American celebrities, befriends her and through all sorts of quirky situations eventually fall in love. It takes place in Notting Hill, a melting pot area of London, England, over the course of a little over a year.
Now, I’m not a sappy person by any stretch of the imagination, but I do have a soft side. And ‘Notting Hill’ really taps into that with the utmost precision. In fact, if one ignores the immovable ‘When Harry Met Sally‘, this one’s in the running for the top of my all-time favourite romantic comedies list.
In my defence, though, I played this for a couple of my guy friends once and they both really liked it – and one of them genuinely dislikes traditional romantic comedies. So what is it about this picture that makes it stand out from the rest? Is it because of the fantasy? What person hasn’t daydreamed of meeting a star that way?
It’s funny but, for me, that was only part of the allure – although I admit to having spent some time creating all sorts of similar scenarios in my head since my teen years. For me, a large part of ‘Notting Hill”s magic comes from the chemistry between Grant and Roberts, the quirkiness of the supporting cast, and the sharp script.
Let’s face it: this wouldn’t be nearly the same movie if not for Grant and Roberts. And, while I’m no great fan of either of them, and plenty of people genuinely dislike them, I think that it’s their movie: no one else could have rendered these characters as perfectly as both of them have (they both won Golden Globes for it, too!).
The director and writer both had selected the pair as their first choices for the parts of William Thacker and Anna Scott, so it’s clear that they made the picture with them in mind. In fact, it is said that Grant is the actor best suited to writer Richard Curtis’ material and that Curtis is the best writer for Grant.
Obviously, Curtis deserves credit: all of this comes from his imagination. And a little bit of personal experience: he has lived in Notting Hill and, in fact, the house with the blue door that William lives in is the very place that Curtis lived in back in the day. Surely a lot of inspiration was mixed with imagination here.
Curtis has said that he, himself, has wondered what it would be like to casually meet a celebrity and fall in love with them. Or to bring that person to a dinner with friends and family without prior notice and observe how each would react and behave around this person. What would come of that unusual meeting?
Well it so turns out that one of the film’s greatest moments is when William brings Anna over to have dinner with his friends. It’s a long scene, but it’s worth every single moment: the awkwardness, the spontaneity, the obliviousness, the star-struckness and the magic that unfolded in that room was something to behold.
It’s a really terrific scene, but I especially liked the way that Curtis wrote Anna to be down-to-earth, how she effortlessly fit in with these people, genuinely liked them as much as they liked her back. By the time that they do a round table to try to win the last piece of dessert, you’re at the table with them, lapping up every line.
Another fantastic scene is when William, in a desperate last minute attempt to see Anna before she leaves, shows up at her hotel and finds himself sucked into a press junket. His poor judgement in claiming to represent ‘Horse and Hound’ magazine and his terrible improvisational skills are pure gold. When he’s finally with Anna, it’s a total riot.
Thankfully, it’s not just the writing that’s inspired, but Roger Michell’s direction, too. Every single beat is pitch-perfect, something that is rare in romantic films or comedies let alone romantic comedies. Every angle, every set-up, every decision that he’s made in the making of this film appear to me to be impossible to improve upon.
There’s this one amazing sequence when William is walking through the Notting Hill street, past all the shops and stands, through the crowds of people (filled with the carefully-planted presence of familiar characters in the background), through four seasons – all in one go. Sure, it was shot separately and merged via computer, but it’s a wickedly inspired shot.
William: “Apart from the American, I’ve only loved two girls, both absolute disasters. The first one marries me and then leaves me faster than you can say Indiana Jones, and the second one, who seriously ought to have known better, casually marries my best friend.”
Hugh Grant is genius as William. Grant and Curtis also collaborated together on ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ and ‘Love Actually‘, but here is where their magic shines through the best. Grant feels completely at home as the smitten bookshop owner, infusing him the perfect mix of charm, with, intelligence, humility and reserve. And Curtis made him funny, howlingly funny, just by virtue of his quirks.
Anna Scott: “I’ve been on a diet every day since I was nineteen, which basically means I’ve been hungry for a decade. I’ve had a series of not nice boyfriends, one of whom hit me. Ah, and every time I get my heart broken, the newspapers splash it about as though it’s entertainment. And it’s taken two rather painful operations to get me looking like this. And, one day not long from now, my looks will go, they will discover I can’t act and I will become some sad middle-aged woman who looks a bit like someone who was famous for a while.”
Julia Robert plays Anna as doppelgänger for none other than… Julia Roberts. It’s often hard to distinguish her characters, and Anna is everything you would imagine Roberts to be: absolutely lovely, grounded and sharp. Seeing as she’s playing a superstar actress, it’s no small stretch to think that the character is, in fact, Julia Roberts, not “Anna”.
Still, despite my usual reservations about Roberts, she is really fabulous here. I fell in love with the film version of her as much as William did. She was imperfect, perhaps a bit too impulsive, but she has sweet side to her that makes you weak in the knees. The way she relishes her every moment away from the spotlight with William is absolutely wonderful to see.
Spike: “Just going to the kitchen to get some food, then I’m going to tell you a story that will make your balls shrink to the size of raisins.”
Rhys Ifans plays Spike, William’s completely uncouth flatmate. A total Neanderthal weirdo, this guy has no sense of propriety… or hygiene. He has no social graces whatsoever. As a real roommate, he would be a nightmare, and one wonders why William endures his presence. From an outsider’s perspective, however, he’s a bloody riot – he’s so inappropriate that he’s a laugh a second. Ifans plays him so perfectly shaggy, sloppy, and gleefully moronic that he’s a total charmer – it would be a star-making turn if he had the look and physique to be one.
Bella: “The more I think about things, the more I see no rhyme or reason in life. no one knows why some things work out and some things don’t. Why some of us are lucky and some of us get…”
Gina McKee plays the girl that got away, one of only two women William has ever loved. She is lovely, courageous, wise, endearing. It makes me want to see more of McKee in other films, even though I suspect that it’s just the way that Curtis wrote the part that is appealing. But McKee makes her real, injects her with tenderness.
Max: “Let’s face facts, this was always a no-win situation. Anna’s a goddess, you know what happens to mortals who get involved with gods.”
Max is William’s best friend. He also happens to be married to Bella. There’s not much to him, but Tim McInnerny roots him, makes him the voice of reason, the person most likely to watch William’s back. You can also see the love that he feels for Bella, even now that she is paraplegic; there is respect and trust there.
Honey: “Oh God, this is one of those key moments in life, when it’s possible you can be really, genuinely cool – and I’m failing 100%. I absolutely and totally and utterly adore you and I think you’re the most beautiful woman in the world and more importantly I genuinely believe and have believed for some time now that we can be best friends. What do YOU think?”
Honey is William’s eccentric sister, a record store clerk with as colourful a personality as her attire. She is offbeat, scattered, but warm-hearted and affable. Emma Chambers is totally convincing in the part, and I can’t think of anyone more appropriate even if someone else could have played her equally well. Chambers is Honey.
Bernie: “But she said she wanted to go out with you?”
William: “Yes – sort of…”
Bernie: “That’s nice.”
Bernie: “Well, you know, anybody saying they want to go out with you is… pretty great… isn’t it…?”
Hugh Bonneville is brilliant as Bernie, Will’s friend and a long-suffering stockbroker. He’s as “everyday” as they come: lonely, exhausted, self-involved, self-effacing and struggling at work. Bernie sounds like any number of people you cross daily, like someone who deserves to have it easier, but doesn’t know how to go about it; he chugs along, all the while watching others live his dreams. Nice guys hopefully don’t have to finish last.
Martin: “Did you know, and this is pretty amazing, but I once saw Ringo Starr.”
William: “Where was that?”
Martin: “Kensington High Street. At least I think it was Ringo, um, it could have been that guy from Fiddler on the Roof. You know, Toppy.”
James Dreyfus is hilarious as the utterly inept Martin, William’s bookshop assistant. He looks completely ill-at-ease, unsure of himself, and socially awkward. Dreyfus really sinks his teeth into that part, making him a borderline caricature, but real enough that he’s credible. It’s merely a small part but it really stands out.
The picture is rounded up by a fine soundtrack. Aside from the Bill Withers mega-classic “Ain’t No Sunshine”, there are no tracks or artists that I find particularly compelling, enough to get the CD, but they all work so well contextually – they were all perfectly picked for the film (I have issues with the saccharine Ronan Keating song, but I seem to be alone on that one).
All told, ‘Notting Hill’ is a superbly-crafted romantic comedy. By the time it rockets to its inevitable conclusion, I’ve been moved: I’ve laughed countless times, I’ve cried far too many times, I’ve fallen in love, I’ve lost hope, and have ultimately been satisfied. It’s one of those rare movies that really does move me. I have been, after all, just a boy, standing in front of a girl, asking her to love him.
I genuinely recommend it. It’s the finest example of a genre that otherwise deserves little attention.
Date of viewing: December 26, 2013