The Guardian July 28, 1999


Film review by Rob Gowland:
Notting Hill

Charm is an undervalued commodity in cinema these days, but Notting 
Hill has it in spades.

Made by the same screenwriter (Richard Curtis) and producer (Duncan 
Kenworthy) as that other highly successful Anglo-US romantic comedy, 
Four Weddings And A Funeral, Notting Hill also shares one of 
that film's stars, Hugh Grant. Here he is William Thacker, the likeable but 
ordinary proprietor of a not very successful travelbook shop in London's 
Portobello Road, Notting Hill.

Near the beginning of the film, his life is changed forever when the 
world's leading film star, Anna Scott (an excellent and very credible Julia 
Roberts) comes into his shop unescorted looking for a book on Turkey.

It is a tradition in romantic comedies for the couple to "meet cute", but 
here the meeting is disarmingly low-key, involving a diffident Hugh Grant, 
a cool Julia and a shoplifter with a book down the front of his trousers.

Imaginatively, the director (Roger Michell) takes advantage of the defects 
of shallow focus photography. Grant as Thacker is in closeup in the 
foreground, attending to documents on his counter.

We see his assistant go out to get coffee for them both, a blurred figure 
in the background as he leaves the shop. Then another blurred figure comes 
in.

We see his eyes flick up to note the new arrival, then revert to the papers 
on the counter. Then, still without changing the shot, his eyes register 
surprise then recognition.

Then Michell cuts to a different angle and a full shot of William as he 
looks straight at the newcomer. We cut to his point of view, but 
tantalisingly, the newcomer has gone behind a high shelf of books  all 
William (and we) can see is her shoulder.

This playfulness is characteristic of the film: the scriptwriter and the 
director know the conventions of the romantic comedy and are prepared to 
both abide by them and play games with them as the need arises.

Richard Curtis's inspired script takes place over a moderately long 
time.This passing of time is the subject of another technical set-piece in 
the film that is extraordinarily old-fashioned  even theatrical  in 
concept, but could only be done successfully on film, using modern digital 
effects.

William walks along Portobello Road, past the market stalls (and a very 
pregnant woman) one sunny day. It starts to rain and he dons his jacket. 

Then it begins to snow, and we realise that we are also watching the 
passing of the seasons as he walks along, his sister being seen at one 
point breaking up acrimoniously with her boyfriend as William passes by on 
the other side of a stall.

By the time we have got back to fine weather, the woman seen at the 
beginning has had her baby and is showing him off to a stallholder. Again, 
it's low key, clever, and just a little playful.

Anna is written as a more complex character than is customary in the genre 
and Julia Roberts plays her with considerable depth and shades of meaning. 
The downside of being a sexy female star  or a "thing" as Marilyn Monroe 
scathingly described herself  is made a palpable part of the plot.

The supporting cast is splendid. William's gauche younger sister Honey 
(Emma Chambers  the Vicar of Dibley's gauche verger) and his shambolic 
Welsh flatmate Spike (Rhys Ifans) are excellent, while William's rather wet 
assistant in the shop will be remembered as the least macho of the police 
officers in The Thin Blue Line.

If they are cast to type, William's best friends the wheelchair-bound Bella 
(Gina McKee) and her husband Max (Tim McInerny) are not. Devoted to each 
other despite Bella's accident, they put the problems of William and Anna 
in a necessary perspective.

Max will be recognised by Black Adder fans as the foolish fop Lord 
Percy from the second series but his solid performance here owes nothing to 
the sitcom. Gina McKee also gives a well nuanced performance as the 
wheelchair-bound Bella.

Also in their circle of close friends is the unsuccessful Bernie ("let's 
face it, as a stockbroker I'm total crap") played with appeal by Hugh 
Bonneville.

But it's Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts who really make the film work, and 
the filmmakers shamelessly use both their smiles (but especially hers) to 
bring the film to a triumphant end that leaves us smiling too.

This is hardly realist filmmaking. It is a fantasy about good, kind people 
in an often unkind world. It is funny, charming, likeable and hugely 
enjoyable.

Produced by Universal, Notting Hill is in cinemas everywhere.

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