Film review by Rob Gowland:
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.