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.