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Notting Hill

****
1999

‘…a cinematic holiday from the drab realities of life….’

At the end of Notting Hill, Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts canoodle on a park bench while he reads the popular historical novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. That novel was to have been the next film project by the film’s director, Roger Michell, who died last week (Sept 2021). Heart problems stopped Michell from taking the job and it went to Shakespeare in Love’s John Madden. What was a casual reference seems like something more in tune with Notting Hill’s theme; we’re all living in the yawning canyon between our dreams and unforgiving reality.

A comedy romance, Notting Hill is surprisingly simple, ‘just a girl standing in front of a boy’ as one of the celebrated quotes go. The boy is a bookseller, William Thacker, played by Hugh Grant with easy charm. He sells books about travel, but isn’t going anywhere; he lives in Notting Hill with a verminous tramp named Spike, played by Rhys Ifans. The girl William meets is a movie star, Anna Scott, played by Julia Roberts, who comes into his shop and strikes sparks, raising hopes of a better relationship than they’ve known before. Will inveigles his way into her publicity machine for her new action blockbuster, disguised as a reporter for Horse and Hound magazine; anyone who has been on the London press junket scene will know that the depiction here is very accurate. Love blossoms, but the press, the public and Spike all conspire to block the path of romance, leaving us to navigate the conventional last minute rush and amusingly overcooked stiff-upper-lip speeches to rectify the situation.

It seems like a long time ago that the UK’s most popular film would be a light crowd-pleasing romance; while much imitated, Notting Hill still feels like a prized original, much like the painting that Anna gives Will. Anna hates the artifice of her life; she seeks something more genuine. William is that person, but his willingness to change his comfortable life to accommodate Anna leaves him directionless. The world around us doesn’t always seem responsive to our needs, and in the face of intrusive worldwide interest in his love-life, Will shies away from Anna, believing that he can’t possibly be worthy. Of course, his friends quickly rally to point out that Anna and Will should be together, and his public proclamation of love for her eventually matches her own for him.

Michell made plenty of strong, serious drama like The Mother, Enduring Love and My Cousin Rachel; that’s a CV that any director would envy. But Notting Hill is the one that deserves the accolade of instant classic. Michell takes Richard Curtis’ charming script, elicits genuine, heartfelt performances, and captures a sense of change with a montage of Will walking through his neighbourhood while the seasons rise and fall around him. I’m not sure where one should look in 2021 for funny, romantic blockbusters, there’s none to be found these days, but even in these dark times, a trip to the late Roger Michell’s Notting Hill is a cinematic holiday from the drab realities of life.

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  1. “I’m not sure where one should look in 2021 for funny, romantic blockbusters, there’s none to be found these days…”

    Perfectly said! I’m going to have to revisit this one. You know I love romances with comedy and heart, and though I saw this when it first came out, I honestly don’t remember much of it.

    Something tells me I will like it today even more than I did back then, if for no other reason then it’ll feel fresh in today’s cynical age of romance.

  2. Thoroughly enjoyable. Hugh Grant at his best and a different kind of role for Roberts, who was up till then not usually in character terms holding all the aces in the rom-com stakes. If Grant had managed to stay a good boy in real life he might have rivalled Richard Gere in the Roberts rom-com movieola. Stand-out supporting cast as well without the need to wrap up their character arcs a la Four Weddings.

  3. It’s a wonderful film. It catches everyone at their best point in life. Hugh Grant as the befuddled everyman, Julia Roberts as the vulnerable superstar, Emma Chambers as the wispy sister, Rhys Ifans as the unsophisticated roommate. Even Gina McKee as the best friend – everyone was just at just the right age and stage of their professions for this film.

    And Richard Curtis had just come off of his Mr. Bean tenure, pens the first of many RomComs – proves he’s the master of the form… and then writes War Horse… proving he’s not just a funny man.

    And the “one take” scene you mention – with Will walking through town as the seasons change and Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” playing in the background – is a lesson in montage.

    Few films “have it all” – Notting Hill does. Still a favorite and my go-to when I want to fashion a romantic story.

    Thanks for this review – I may pour a cup of hot cocoa and curl up on the sofa to watch it tonight!

    • Agreed. No-one is dining off past glories, everyone is at their very best here. And there’s a nice contrast between Will’s self-doubt and Spike’s ridiculous over-confidence. I’m no great fan of Ifans, but he gets big laughs here that keeps the whole package on point. Enjoy your cocoa and in case of emergency, crack this one open; a rom-com with plenty of both.

  4. I liked Roberts in the Oceans 11 franchise but most of what else she starred in never appealed to me so I’ve not seen much of her. As for Grant, for some reason I get the vibe he’s an arrogant jerk but I don’t know if that’s from the movies or real life. It’s all quite confusing.

    I would probably give this a try if it were free on prime. But with big names like Hugh and Julia, I don’t hold out much hope of that.

  5. Never saw this. Romcoms aren’t my thing. Also not a Julia Roberts or Hugh Grant fan.

    I’ve also never been on the London press junket scene. Is the food any good?

    • Yes, the food is good. After seeing the film Super Size me, we wondered if it was possible to live for a month without buying food or clothes, just living on freebies, wearing junket T shirts, eating vol-au-vents and drinking red and white wine. I think it could be done, or could have been done back then; most interviews are done on Zoom today with publicists listening in. So it would be harder for Will and Anna to get together.

      So there’s no good rom-coms in your book?

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