Can a lonely book seller find true happiness with a goddess of the American movie screen? Director Roger Michell attempts to illustrate the pleasures as well as the pitfalls of such an Anglo-American alliance in Notting Hill (1999); an utterly charming, astutely adult romantic comedy costarring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant – two of the most congenial ‘feel good’ stars to ever appear in such light-hearted fare. Like a lot of other romantic comedies from its ilk and vintage, Notting Hill’s plot is frequently intruded upon by a pop tune driven soundtrack, director Michell choosing to bridge certain elements in montage to expedite his storytelling while the likes of Al Green, Elvis Costello and Trevor Jones – among others – set the tone and mood for the moment. It’s a clumsy device at best, but in retrospect Notting Hill is one of the last truly engaging romantic comedies of its generation: our present compost having devolved the genre into crude, crass and fairly tasteless bathroom humor without a shred of socially redeeming value. To be sure, Notting Hill tests the boundaries of saucy English farce; particularly in the character of Spike (Rhys Ifans); a tantalizing mixture of daft perversity; the socially inept, but wholly endearing simpleton out of his depth, romantically speaking.
The crux of Notting Hill is not about getting the laugh – ironically, exactly the reason the film gets them with mounting regularity as Richard Curtis’ screenplay introduces us to one dizzy dame and lumbering Neanderthal after another; the wit as dry as a martini, but with little jabs of pleasure deriving from the fact that we already know Julia Robert’s commitment shy mega-star, Anna Scott is destined to find lasting contentment beyond the footlights with Hugh Grant’s ill-spoken/utterly awkward travel bookshop owner, William Thacker. Notting Hill excels – at least in part – because its stars are genuine. We’ve seen them both play these parts before; Roberts, in any number of frothy romantic comedies with the nimblest of plots, and Grant – coming down from his real life sexual faux pas with Hollywood prostitute, Divine Brown; something his Charles in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) would have done with less folly but more buffoonish finesse.
Notting Hill is Richard Curtis’ brainchild, conceived from a restless night’s tossing and turning, the concept of a quote ‘normal’ person falling in love with the unattainable of this world hardly revolutionary. In fact, the film is rather liberally bathed in shades of the Cinderella fable, albeit – in reverse, and tempered by the very bumpy course of true love. On this outing the impediments are not external, but rather in the roadblocks deliberately set up by our two principals; each arguably wounded and cautious about the direction of their burgeoning relationship. Anna Scott isn’t a bad egg. She isn’t even a gadabout – at least, not the kind Hollywood is used to presenting or even celebrating in the tabloids. No, Anna knows what the world thinks of her; the double edged sword of fame resting squarely on her slender shoulders. She’d like to fall in love. But she is just not all that certain love – or anything even remotely like it – is possible; the fiction of her public image having expunged the reality of the private girl lurking beneath.
Grant’s William Thacker has his own concerns – starting with the social acceptance of his friends and dotty sister, Honey (Emma Chambers) whose introduction to Anna is “holy f_ck!” There’s also William’s flat mate, Spike – who thinks that a way to a woman’s heart is by wearing a T-shirt that reads “You’re the most beautiful woman in the world…fancy a f_ck?” Will’s best friends, marrieds Bella (Gina McKee) and Max (Tim McInnerny), although encouraging, are weary about the longevity of such a relationship; worried that Anna’s worldly fame will devour the relative obscurity Will presently enjoys. And then there’s number cruncher, Bernie (Hugh Bonneville) – obtuse, oblivious and utterly charming. He doesn’t even know who Anna Scott is.
Director Michell might have wound up with artistic gumbo on his hands, except that he deftly navigates his way through this carnival-esque mélange of twits and misfits, naturalizing his characters to the absurdities in the plot while acclimatizing the audience to each of them with a perfectly pitched home run to our hearts. If Notting Hill were only a ‘cute romantic comedy’ it would already have a lot going for it. But Curtis’ screenplay also goes a little deeper behind the velvet curtain of stardom and Anna’s unromantic viewpoint about the position she currently holds in the cinema firmament. “The fame thing isn’t real,” she explains to William, “I’m just a girl standing before a guy asking him to love her.” It’s an astute observation, one that Julia Roberts emphasizes with great sincerity, perhaps reflecting a bit on her own popularity – at its zenith when Notting Hill debuted.
Julia Roberts is undeniably one of the last ‘stars’ to emerge with staying power; her doe-like, sensitive eyes and garage door-sized mouth and lips poetically expressive. Roberts’ great gift has always been in her ability to extract our empathy for the characters she inhabits. While her harshest critics have often suggested that Roberts is merely doing a pantomime of who she is – rather than acting - you can’t fake that sort of sincerity and Roberts has it in spades. Moreover, she knows damn well how to bottle and market it into popcorn gold at the box office. Roberts’ first movie, Mystic Pizza (1988) gave us two sides to the woman we would later come to know. She’s a rewarding individual to be around – or at least gives this impression - and that sense of self translates into screen presence whenever she appears.
Interestingly, Hugh Grant’s William Thacker isn’t really the right type for Roberts’ forthright Anna – too soft-featured and effetely cute; lacking that spark of masculine ruggedness referenced in Roberts’ other leading men - most obviously Richard Gere’s smooth shaven but utterly ruthless corporate raider in Pretty Woman (1990). Yet, Grant makes it work – perhaps, because like Roberts, his strength lies more in playing the proverbial fish out of water; unbelievably awkward, demure and struggling half-intelligently to genuinely express himself to the woman he so clearly loves.
Like Roberts, Grant can play the poor old sap we can’t help but sympathize with and that makes him lovable in spite of himself. If there’s something of an absence of the essential romantic spark between these two film favs, then there’s also a complete lack of arrogance or subterfuge about the man. Following Grant’s real-life incarceration for picking up L.A. hooker, Divine Brown, his on-screen characters began to acquire a patina of more sullen bitterness; congenial fop downgraded to disreputable rogue played up and exploited in Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001). But Notting Hill still casts Grant as everybody’s favorite innocent – a man in love with genuine concerns that he’ll ruin the one good thing going for him even with the best of intentions.
Evidently, screenwriter Richard Curtis’ decision to place his story in Notting Hill – London’s most joyously eclectic and colorful sector where one could just as easily run into a gaggle of buskers as the future Princess of Wales out for a stroll, helps to add plausibility to the plot. It also created minor headaches for production manager Sue Quinn and designer Stuart Craig; London’s police helping to maintain order amidst the chaos of filming all over the city without the luxury of being able to officially close down and seal off the streets to accommodate the film unit. Only Michell’s request for shooting in Leister Square was denied, owing to a prior incident during the premiere of a Leonardo Di Caprio movie. Otherwise, the unit moved from Portobello Road to the Ritz, Savoy and Hempel hotels, and finally Nobu Restaurant for a pivotal scene where Anna confronts a table of men who are all too eager to crudely fantasize about a night in her boudoir.
Yet, the verisimilitude augmented by thousands of onlookers and the paparazzi lurking about the peripheries of each shot not only seems right in keeping with the popularity of the movie’s real life stars, but also fitting for the character of Anna Scott; she skulking in dark sunglasses and a sporty black beret, darting into William’s travel book shop on an impromptu whim to escape her pampered/sheltered life in between work and studio PR junkets. And Will is the perfect guy for Anna at that moment – unassuming and frankly anesthetized by his first glimpse of this larger-than-life fantasy creature he has only been able to admire from afar, but who now stands five feet seven inches tall at his front desk.
Notting Hill opens with an extended montage under its titles set to the tune of Elvis Costello’s rather anemic rendition of an old Charles Aznavour song, ‘She’. We see Anna Scott – world famous star adored by millions, besought by the public and the press; the drama and the spectacle of what most laymen imagine the precepts of stardom in totem to be succinctly summarized under the main titles. It’s a perfect picture – Anna Scott (Julia Roberts): star! All of London is frankly agog and abuzz with the news that Anna is about to begin shooting her latest movie in England. But for one man, independent bookseller William Thacker, Anna’s arrival is about to take on a very special meaning.
Will’s an introspective divorcee. He has about as much chance of meeting Anna Scott in the flesh as in convincing his uninhibited Welsh flat mate, Spike that the way to a real woman’s heart is through genuine heartfelt sentiment. But kismet is on Will’s side. For Anna does indeed find her way to his cluttered little shop in Notting Hill. It’s a ‘cute meet’ of a kind – she, quietly pretending to be somebody else at first/ he accidentally spilling orange juice all over her, then offering to help clean up the mess inside his nearby apartment. Her belligerence gives way to coy gratitude; his remuneration sealed with a kiss – the start of an awkward affair destined for better things. Too bad for William that Spike has the I.Q. of a dead flashlight battery. He forgets to pass along a message from Anna until it’s almost too late; that she’s at the Ritz under the name ‘Flintstone’ holding press interviews for her new sci-fi movie - Helix. Will arrives and is let in by Anna’s agent under the pretext that he is a journalist for ‘Horse & Hound magazine. Naturally, the ‘interview’ goes badly.
Nevertheless, Will is elated when Anna offers to cancel a previous engagement to be his date at Max and Bella’s house for a surprise birthday celebration for his sister, Honey. No one really believes Will when he says he’s bringing Anna Scott to the party, and no one is more startled by Anna’s sudden appearance than Honey who nearly wets herself at the first sight of her favorite movie star in the flesh. To everyone’s surprise, Anna fits right in with Will’s motley crew. Afterwards Will and Anna share embarrassing childhood stories, the pair breaking into a private London square where they talk some more and gradually fall in love.
It all seems to be working much too smoothly for Will – his skepticism heightened and later confirmed when he learns that Anna’s American boyfriend, Jeff King (Alec Baldwin) has flown in for a quick conjugal stopover at the Ritz. Will crashes the moment pretending to be room service and Anna later reveals that her relationship with Jeff is at an end. Time passes. Then, one day six months later Anna arrives at Will’s home unannounced, pleading for a place to hide out from the press while a scandal involving some ‘cheesecake’ photos taken back in her college days blows over. Will is sympathetic and later discovers to his delight that Anna’s feelings for him have only intensified since their time apart. The couple makes love; their moment of serenity shattered when the press lays siege on Will’s home the next morning with a barrage of questions involving their affair. Believing that Will has betrayed her, Anna darts out the back way and Will attempts once more to forget her.
Time passes again. Anna returns to England to begin work on a new Henry James movie. Earlier, Will had suggested that Anna broaden her range. To him, her acceptance of the Henry James movie now suggests that he is more of an influence and a part of her life than ever before. But this bubble is burst when Will inadvertently overhears Anna on a microphone between takes talking with another actor (Samuel West) about Will as someone she just knows from her past. Will is despondent and leaves the set immediately. When Anna confronts Will, explaining that the co-star is a notorious gossip, he graciously listens to her, but then turns down her proposal of marriage, explaining that he could not survive being rejected by her again.
Dejected, Anna leaves the bookshop and Will heads off to meet his friends at a nearby pub. Everyone is supportive except for Spike who admonishes Will for being a ‘daft prick’. Realizing that life without Anna is none at all, Will gets Max, Bella, Honey and Bernie to drive him to the Savoy where Anna is holding her farewell final press conference before heading back home. Will confesses his undying love under the guise of being just another reporter; publicly apologizes and then proposes. The room erupts in flashbulbs and questions shouted, Elvis Costello’s reprise of ‘She’ leading into a closing montage of clips that illustrate Anna’s retirement from the movies and she and Will are expecting their first child.
Notting Hill is a fairy tale for the post-modern age; the Cinderella fable reversed, with its oft’ resurrected theme of commoner meets (Hollywood) royalty predictably concluding on the proverbial ‘happy ending’. Love, impenetrable and enduring through time and hardship is the most frequently resurrected commodity in movies because it never fails to click with an audience. Guaranteed box office is a numbers game and romance sells tickets. Moreover, director Roger Michell knows how to manipulate his stars and scenarios for maximum ‘feel good’. From its first frame to the last, Notting Hill finds a place in our hearts not so much because it seems new or even fresh, but rather because Michell knows exactly where to place the right amount of emphasis to elicit the tear-jerking sigh and happily evoked wink, nudge and smile. Comedy in general often gets passed over by the critics as ‘fluff stuff’ – vacuous, escapist and lacking in importance. But I prefer to evoke another popular variant of a time-honored show business adage: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard!”
Notting Hill only seems effortless because Michell is working from a superior script and has invested with a group of top-notch celebrity talent. With one or the other the film might have worked at some lesser level. With all of the pistons firing simultaneously, Notting Hill emerges as a joyful, occasionally wacky, but always appropriately adult comedy of errors; the principals having discovered genius in the exercise and able to convey it without too many of the flaws showing. Some comedies are silly. Some are crude. Notting Hill is a bit of each, but more astute, evenly paced and very much imbued with a sense of the miraculous in the everyday. Michell and his stars get high marks for selling this bittersweet confection as high art. It really isn’t, but we’re entertained by it nonetheless and, in the intervening decades, Notting Hill remains a perennially refreshing, no-nonsense romantic comedy with ‘feel good’ written all over it. Like the fragrant elixir of a favorite perfume, one whiff of Notting Hill is never enough.
Universal Home Video debuts Notting Hill on Blu-ray in a disappointing transfer using old digital files to master the DVD from 2001. Doing direct side-by-side comparisons of the image the parallels and inaccuracies are immediate and obvious. Opening credits exhibit a rather muddy patina, the Universal logo looking soft and slightly out of focus, the white lettering used for the credits registering a flat gray and a tad blurry.
In the scene where Will takes Anna to his flat to change her clothes after spilling his orange juice we get the very same manifestation of digital instability, the background information suffering from a persistent strobe that mimics the distortion one might see during the old analog days when an airplane flew overhead. This anomaly is reoccurring throughout this presentation. On smaller monitors it won’t distract but it is still quite obvious. Blown up on screens 60 inches or greater or during projection it looks positively ghastly!
Universal has been practically nonexistent in releasing catalogue titles over the past twelve months. Given that so little was on the studio’s schedule there really is no excuse for Notting Hill looking this crummy in hi-def. A new hi-rez scan should have been performed!
Colors can be vibrant at times. But the image waffles between moments of razor-sharp crispness and a decidedly soft focus that is not indigenous to the source elements. We lose fine detail and clarity all at once. Notting Hill also lacks the texture of film grain, another sign that Universal has minted this disc from earlier scanned elements not prepared with a hi-def presentation in mind. Flesh tones occasionally tend to look a tad pinkish – not in that awful and artificially enhanced ‘piggy pink’ we’ve seen on other hi-def presentations but still not satisfactorily natural. The 5.1 DTS audio is another cause for consternation. While dialogue is presented at a mid-range listening level, the interjection of pop songs throughout the movie blares at decibel levels usually referenced for big scale action sequences, leaving the viewer in a constant flux with the remote control, toggling the volume control up and down so as not to assault the eardrum. Badly done!
Extras are all imports from the old DVD and include 12 minutes of deleted scenes, including a hilarious vignette where William attempts to tell his parents about Anna. We also get 15 min. of ‘on location’ junket material billed as a ‘documentary’. Honestly, there ought to be a law about misrepresenting PR sound bytes as a full-fledged ‘making of’! Finally, there’s 4 min. of Hugh Grant schmoozing with his fellow actors, a 3 min. stroll down Portobello Road, and a pair of music videos: Elvis Costello’s ‘She’ and Shania Twain’s ‘You’ve Got a Way.’ Last, but not least, we get a reprise of Michell, Curtis and producer Duncan Kenworthy’s rather self-congratulatory audio commentary. It’s okay, but doesn’t really get into the mechanics of shooting the movie – more reflections on the fun and camaraderie shared on the set. Bottom line: not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)