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Notting Hill

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 28 May 1999

  Directed by Roger Michell.

Starring Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant,
Hugh Bonneville, Emma Chambers, James Dreyfus,
Rhys Ifans, Tim McInnerny, and Gina McKee.

Written by Richard Curtis.

A week after the Force landed with an fx-tive $100 million-plus comes this bright, romantic comedy that should float to a strong second-place finish behind you know what. And after last week’s lackluster The Love Letter, Notting Hill posts the brightest love missive since last year’s Shakespeare in Love. Yes, this new Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant collaboration is a few notches below Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s brilliant, Oscar-winning screenplay, but Richard Curtis’ breezy script echoes the eccentric camaraderie of his Academy Award-nominated Four Weddings and a Funeral five years ago, while adding some bumble-headed situations that reflect on the Bean character that Curtis created with Rowan Atkinson. The lunatics and fringe dwellers all belong to the handsome yet shy William Thacker (Grant), and they proffer him advice for the lovelorn, some outrageous blind dates, and bad cooking. Anna Scott, the fabulously beautiful and successful American actress portrayed by Roberts, is surrounded by her professional associates and aides on location in London, but nary a friend in sight; for all the glory bestowed on her, she is sketched as a terribly lonely character, devoid of confidants, failed in her relationships, and vulnerable to the tabloids and paparazzi that chase her down every street. Director Roger Michell (Persuasion) pushes the piece along at a brisk pace that belies the film’s slightly over-stayed length and fabricated ending. The audience still loved it and gave it a hearty round of applause as the end credits rolled up.

William is a struggling pessimist living in the heart of Notting Hill, a quaint West London suburb that caters to small shops, street stalls, antique collectors, and particularly William’s struggling travel book store. He shares a nearby flat with Spike (Rhys Ifans), one of the more memorable characters in the film. He’s a scrawny, dirty flunkie whose every ditsy action and dimly-lit utterance is a comic gem, a genetic defect from his dinosaur ancestors, the ones with pea-sized brains. Even his feet look like they once walked through tar pits. As William suggests to Anna, "There’s no excuse for him." Later he plays amateur shrink to probe his roommate’s woes. After his analysis no one would ever mistake this masturbating Welshman for a professional.

Anna and William meet early and their on-off-on-off relationship has its hits and misses, to play along with a baseball analogy, as you wonder if William will strike out or hit one out of the park as the film is tied in regulation and then goes on those few innings too long in search of some last minute heroics. Curtis has written some very snappy dialogue which frames Roberts’ dazzling teeth and Grant’s gorgeous gray eyes. And the writer makes their romantic repartee believable in its charming awkwardness. After all, some guys who meet a stunning movie star are lucky to get her autograph; William’s good fortune spots him a live-in screen princess, a dream threatened only by the lovers’ insecurities and the intrusive media at his doorstep.

Their drop-dead good looks are surrounded by the gold-toothed Spike; Bernie (Hugh Bonneville), a failing stockbroker -- with a passing resemblance to Rowan Atkinson -- initially oblivious to the fame of Anna as he engages in a humorous conversation about her career; Honey (Emma Chambers), William’s orange-flavored sister with googly eyes, her teeth and hair scattered to the ends of the earth; Max (Tim McInnerny) and his wheelchair-dependent wife Bella (Gina McKee), still in love after many years, despite his affinity to destroy any meal he tries to cook. Other small parts, even if just for a few seconds of screen time, make an impression, including Roger Frost as an annoying customer looking for popular novels in William’s non-fiction bookstore. Matthew Modine and Alex Baldwin pop up uncredited, the former sharing a film-within-a-film segment opposite Anna. Baldwin plays an acquaintance of Anna’s who broadly paints "Ugly American" and funks out William (signaled on the soundtrack by Al Green warbling "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart").

It’s real easy to admire Notting Hill, the movie and Notting Hill, the location. Late in the film, William strolls down picturesque Portobello Road among the tourist and tradesmen as the seasons change around him (just like in the car commercials). In this compressed sequence, the pedestrians zoom by, but I spotted a pregnant woman at the start of the walk. The same lady pops up a few moments later with her unborn child now a toddler, much like an old vaudeville routine featuring a long hand ladder with the same person on both ends. Another small gem in a pocketful of ‘em.

There are endearing moments and memorable characters. It’s heart-warming and heartfelt. All the running gags work, including one involving William masquerading as a unprepared reporter for Horses and Hounds while interviewing the cast of Helix, Anna’s latest sci-fi epic. Notting Hill is whimsical and light, fresh and quirky. Quite engaging and quietly appealing.

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