Notting Hill has been touted as an unofficial sequel to Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). There is a slight edge of desperation in the way this new film tries to mimic the formula of its predecessor: a romantic comedy with a bunch of pining eccentrics around the margins of the plot; a swag of familiar love songs ranging from Charles Aznavour's "She" to Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone"; and a continuous travelogue-like promotion for the cool, groovy parts of London.
Indeed, with its somewhat grating emphasis on lifestyle, Notting Hill also has much in common with other recent London romances like The Man with Rain in His Shoes (1998) and Martha, Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence (1998). Not that this display of cool is ostentatious: William Thacker (Hugh Grant) may run a travel bookstore and read Henry James, but he's still close enough to the gutter to share a few Withnail & I-type experiences with his gruesome flatmate, Spike (Rhys Ifans).
The central love story involves Anna (Julia Roberts), an American film star who bumps into William a couple of times and instantly becomes attracted to him. The attraction is mutual, but there are a dozen obstacles in the way of this romance: her career, her promotional schedule, her entourage, her boyfriend ... and eventually, his doubts.
There is much that is charming about Notting Hill. However, one key element of the film is delivered so insistently and repetitively it becomes annoying. This is the gap between Anna as a glamorous star and almost everybody else – all those ordinary people populating every scene who are depicted as awkward, badly dressed, vulgar and physically unprepossessing. Spike represents the acme of this heavy-handed tendency.
Furthermore, how on earth does Hugh Grant fit into this picture? In the logic of the story, he has to belong with the modest, lonely unachievers of the world. Indeed, his friends tell him he has "gone to seed", that he is a has-been like them. But no film as intensely geared to the box-office as this is going to seriously cast a dork alongside a star. So the plot tells us one thing about William, while our eyes and ears show us something completely different.
Director Roger Michell (Persuasion, 1995) gives a picturesque flow to proceedings, but the real auteur here is screenwriter Richard Curtis (Bean , The Tall Guy ), who pulls out his complete bag of tricks.
Curtis is fond, for instance, of scenes involving little games or contests, where friends or lovers compare experiences. In Four Weddings, the dinner-table topic was each person's inventory of sexual partners; this time it is a competition to prove who is life's greatest loser.
Another Curtis favourite – this one clearly inspired by the shenanigans in old Cary Grant movies – is the elaborate gag based on a character's improvised masquerade. In order to chat with Anna, William finds himself at one point posing as a reporter from Horse and Hound magazine, with hilarious consequences. Scenes in this vein express the sillier side of Curtis' comic imagination.
There is also an odd and beguiling reflexive level to the film, reminiscent of Woody Allen's Celebrity (1998). Since Anna talks so much about the problems of being a star, we are constantly reminded of Roberts' own career and personal hardships. In one of many lightly modernist gags, Anna's amusing confession about using a body double in her films is immediately followed by the sight of Roberts starting to disrobe.
Ultimately, Notting Hill will win audiences by the sheer cumulative force of its central romantic intrigue. The film plays cagily on the mechanism of delayed gratification (for the characters as for us), and invents a sequence of obstacles and revelations that keep dashing everyone's heartfelt hopes.
Grant and Roberts can both be narcissistic performers, showing off their familiar tics and mannerisms for the indulgent eye of the camera. But when the script allows opportunities for real chemistry between them, the effect is plaintive and heartbreaking.
Notting Hill works like a good pop song – where blatant contrivance and conventionality never stand in the way of a good cry.
MORE Michell: Enduring Love
© Adrian Martin June 1999