Notting Hill (1999)

D: Roger Michell
S: Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant

Enjoyable romantic comedy written by Richard Curtis which follows the adventures of bookshop owner Hugh Grant after a chance encounter with American movie star Julia Roberts. Curtis, who also wrote the mega-success Four Weddings and a Funeral, trades fortune for fame here. Instead of dealing with the world of the English upper classes as in "Four Weddings", he shifts to a group of frustrated middle class underachievers and contrasts them with the equally dissatisfied celebrity who, as is the way of these things, has a chance for salvation in her relationship with one of them. Some self-reflexive jibes at the entertainment industry and a level of sympathetic reflection upon the trials of being world famous provide this film with enough interesting background material to hold interest, and Curtis crafts the traditional tale of boy meets girl with professional ease.

Roberts is good in the lead (following My Best Friend's Wedding), though her character displays enough emotional fragility to set alarm bells ringing in anyone who has ever followed the gossip column marriages and divorces of such people. Only the kind of character played here by Grant and existing entirely in the world of romantic comedy would entertain the possibility of a long term relationship with her. As he is also good, between them they manage to make a far-fetched premise seem perfectly reasonable. This is often the essence of the romance genre, of course, and Curtis is well aware that he must remove all traces of reality whilst maintaining the veneer of authenticity.

The situation is aptly demonstrated by the contradictions inherent in the choice of locale. Notting Hill was a London district once famed for the race riots which threatened to engulf Britain in a tide of racial conflict. The film does not make even the slightest reference to this social history. It is instead a friendly, trendy wonderland of open market stalls and comfortable though struggling (white) characters like Grant and his circle of friends. It is a place stripped of its troublesome past in a film which deliberately refers to the more distant and romantic past (the references to Jane Austen and Henry James are not incidental). Equally its characters nominally demonstrate economic and personal difficulties (complete with Gina McKee as a wheelchair-bound former flame of Grant's, Tim McInnerny (Blackadder) as her husband who cannot cook, Hugh Bonneville as a failing stockbroker and Emma Chambers as Grant's kooky sister), but nonetheless live free of genuine, or at least discernible, torment. Even scene stealing Rhys Ifans as Grant's scruffy Welsh flat mate is too likable for real life, and perhaps there is some measure of self-effacement in the much-publicised scene where he stands in his underwear posing for the paparazzi. It is all contrivance, performance and entertainment, and damn if it doesn't work.

Despite a final wrapup which stretches one's tolerance for romantic fantasy, Notting Hill manages to get away with its contrivances thanks to a well measured balance of light drama and belly laughs. Roberts and Grant hold the centre well, shifting tone as required with skill. Neither stretches their personae, though at least Roberts is given an opportunity to comment upon hers. They are backed by an enthusiastic supporting cast and a nice pace. The film is punctuated with comic set pieces mostly centred around Ifans, though Grant gets to deliver his fair quota of Curtis' verbose one liners as well. It does tend for the most part to be a light drama, and while it never attempts the tragic tone of the 'Funeral' segment in 'Four Weddings', it seems easier on its feet and less desperate to generate romantic chemistry than its predecessor. It pushes the up and down buttons of the rocky road to romantic resolution with no real surprises, but there is a pleasing rhythm to it and it keeps you entertained.

Those in search of a romantic comedy with some depth and bite should look elsewhere, but Notting Hill is as good a run through of the formula as it needs to be for box office success. It is comfortable, fun viewing which taxes neither the brain nor the heart, but which makes you laugh and smile when it wants to and leaves you feeling cheerful, which is probably a good enough reason to see it. It is an improvement over "Four Weddings", but it is perhaps less ambitious. Those who were enamoured of the former will doubtless admire this equally, but as one who was not, this reviewer must admit to finding this harmless and pleasant entertainment which should have a broad appeal.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.