Notting Hill (1999)
Directed by Roger Michell
Cast: Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Rhys Ifans, Emma Chambers, Tim McInnerny, Gina McKee, Hugh Bonneville.
1999 124 minutes
Rated: (for profanity and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 30, 1999.
The final installment of what I'd like to call the "unrelated bookstore romance trilogy," director Roger Michell's "Notting Hill" is, for my money, easily the best (the other two being "You've Got Mail" and "The Love Letter"). It is a sparkling romantic comedy, full of so much energy, laughs, and intelligence that it also must go down as one of the better films of its genre this decade. Taking the overly familiar formula of "boy-gets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-gets-girl-back," Michell and screenwriters Richard Curtis and Duncan Kenworthy have put an extra spin on the potentially mundane by having a great deal to say about fame, and the price celebrities must pay, when most would probably rather lead a "normal" life.
Set exclusively in the homely England town of Notting Hill, William Thacker (Hugh Grant) is a lonely 35-year-old divorcee who runs a travel bookshop and shares a townhouse with the goofy, unsightly Spike (Rhys Ifans), a scruffy-looking man who is oddly lovable even when he is revolting. One day while at work, William finds his life suddenly change before his eyes when Anna Scott (Julia Roberts), the world's most famous movie star, walks in to do some book-shopping. After a brief encounter, William then experiences a "Meet-Cute" with Anna when he accidentally spills orange juice on her while walking along the street. After stopping by at his home to clean up, it becomes clear that Anna really likes William, and might even want to further the relationship, but there are, predicatably, many obstacles in the way. For one, the life of a movie star is not easy, as they rarely are able to snatch a moment's time for themselves. And two, Anna knows that their budding romance might very well lead to life-changing consequences for William and herself, particularly when the media inevitably catches on to the story.
Watching "Notting Hill," it is clear to see how easily the film could have been of lesser quality. After all, we've seen this story outline numerous, practically endless, times before and to mostly ho-hum results. It is only after the fame aspect is added in that the film proves it is trying something a little different, as the dialogue always comes off as nothing less than witty and entertaining. This slyness also leads to the heavy dose of humor the film has going for it, and I can't even remember when I've laughed so hard at a romantic comedy before.
Aside from the scripting, the supporting characters are all comic originals, from Ifans, as William's roomate, Spike, who brightens up each scene he is in (even if the scenes are already bright), to Emma Chambers, as William's talkative, lovable sister, Honey, who is fortunate enough to be given the film's most laugh-inducing line of dialogue, when she first meets Anna, the movie star. Also effective in minor roles are Tim McInnerny, as William's brother, and Gina McKee, as his crippled wife, who share a few nice scenes together, and whose relationship is believable and touching as a married couple who love each other with all their hearts, no matter what.
And of course at the center of the film are the star attractions, Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. Grant is the character whom we follow throughout the film, and he gives a memorable performance that more than adequately displays the full round of emotions William feels when it looks like his relationship with Anna isn't going to work out after all, and then when he finds himself given another chance. The question of should he take the chance or not is cause for some debate, and your opinion will greatly hinge on if you, like William, have fallen for Anna. Since she is played by Julia Roberts, of all people, my prediction is that most people will grow to care and understand her character's plight, as she has all of the money and success that she could ask for, but still is burdened with her extreme popularity, the media, and no privacy. It would be the easy way out to say that Roberts is, in general, playing herself, but I don't think so. Anna is strictly a character, but the reason Roberts is so wonderful and right at home here is because she, no doubt, has taken her own experiences with fame and put them into the context of this film. Together, Grant and Roberts are dynamite, and perhaps they could go on to become the next Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic duo.
One of the pleasures to be had in "Notting Hills" is in its dealing with Hollywood. One of the best, and most hilarious, on-target, sequences comes when William drops by the Ritz hotel to see Anna, and finds himself in the midst of press interviews. Saying that he is from "Horses & Hounds" magazine, William is forced into a seemingly endless stream of interviews with Anna Scott's co-stars in her latest film, the sci-fi epic, "Helix." The sheer accuracy of the interview procedure is one of the reasons the scene is so successful, and is only aided by William's utterly benign questions, such as when he asks Anna, "do you wish that you had added more horses into your film?" "Not really," replies Anna, "seeing that this particular picture takes place in space." Because of her fame, Anna knows that she can never have what most people have, which is a regular life, but still feels frustrated by the fact that she can't do anything without the media turning it into a major headline blitz. The treatment of this character element only enhances the film, and Anna, so that when she grows upset at one point late in the picture, it is an understandable reaction.
Although not vital to the film's story, one added bonus that should be pin-pointed is a magical, liberating sequence in which William walks down a Notting Hill street and right in front of your eyes, we see the seasons change from summer to rain to snow, and finally, to spring. Bravo to director Michell for attempting something so fresh and stylish, and performing it to perfection.
How everything ends up at the conclusion of "Notting Hill" can be more or less telegraphed before the movie even starts, but getting to that predictable moment was an unexpected delight, and for the film to have ended any other way would have seemed like a cheat. "Notting Hill" is the rare, quintessential Hollywood romance--smart, affectionate, realistic, and thoroughly likable.
©1999 by Dustin Putman