When it’s on: Friday, 13 April 2012 (10.00 pm)
Notting Hill almost feels like a sequel to Four Weddings and a Funeral, and there’s little doubt the effort was made to repeat the formula of 1994’s ‘little film that could’ – written by Richard Curtis, starring Hugh Grant, use of a female American star (the ante was upped here considerably, Julia Roberts taking on the ‘Andie McDowell’ role whilst probably the highest profile actress on the planet). Between Four Weddings and this, Curtis had once again hit gold with the screenplay for Bean, whilst doing the same on the small screen with mannered comedy, The Vicar of Dibley. In the meantime, Grant by now was a vastly bankable star, though the projects he undertook in America played wholly to his screen persona as a posh, bumbling, floppy haired Englishman abroad, essentially a loveable innocent. His arrest in 1995 for soliciting an LA prostitute undermined all this, possibly a good thing given the stereotypical roles he might have been offered forever by the studios…
Four Weddings introduced Grant and Curtis to a wider world, leading to fears that Notting Hill might be little more than a retread. Fortunately, the film is a very different and far more sophisticated piece of work, a comment on the celebrity enjoyed and suffered by its star and writer in equal measures whilst finding work for an entire prep school of British thesps (the sort of cast Curtis would forever attempt to assemble, reaching its ultimate expression in Love Actually).
Grant plays William Thacker, the proprietor of the kind of travel bookshop in Notting Hill that seems blissfully free of paying customers, apart from those who bring some element of comedy. Into the store walks Julia Roberts, pretty much playing herself as Anna Scott, the movie world’s biggest star. All Anna really wants is a normal life and it becomes clear that Thacker’s destiny is to provide one for her. That’s more or less it, but with two hours of screen time to fill there are a series of contrived situations to endure and those British thesps to meet. Some of the former are brilliant. Compelled to meet Anna at a press junket, Thacker realises the only way he can reach her is to pretend to be a member of the media establishment and thus reinvents himself as the film critic for Hare and Hounds. Hilarity ensues.
Of the thesps, Gina McKee is probably the best as Thacker’s wheelchair-bound sister and perhaps one of most positive role models for the disabled ever written for the screen. Tim McInnerny is her husband who can’t cook but who can sweep her tenderly into his arms at the most empathetic moment. Long before Downton loomed into view, Hugh Bonneville was a jobbing British actor who’d popped up in umpteen TV and film roles and here plays the good-natured idiot, a staple of Curtis scripts (James Fleet in Four Weddings, McInnerny in Blackadder). And then there’s Rhys Ifans, basically igniting his career as Thacker’s slovenly flatmate.
Fans of Four Weddings who were expecting more of the same in Notting Hill might initially have been put off by its gentler pace and more rounded characters, the latter in place of that earlier work’s plot contrivances (the eponymous quartet of weddings, etc) and all the better for it. If anyone comes out of it badly, it’s Roberts, whose character is self-centred, spiteful and overly tough on poor Thacker. The film’s unexaggerated setting suggests this could indeed be what she’s like in real life and the moment when she returns to his bookshop to ask him back into her life feels like it’s been tacked on to ensure the plot moves in the direction it has to, whereas viewers hope he might have found happiness elsewhere. But of course he hasn’t. Every other female in the story is either connected or related, ensuring the film doesn’t fall into the Four Weddings trap of ensuring Grant ends up with the frosty, aloof McDowell as the more suitable – and no less attractive – Kristin Scott-Thomas and Anna Chancellor are discarded along the way.
Despite Julia Roberts, there’s much to love here. Grant and Curtis are at the top of their respective games and some of the filming is wonderful, not least the scene where the passing of seasons is expressed by Thacker strolling along Notting Hill market, eternal through the sun, wind and snow to the refrain of Bill Withers’s Ain’t no Sunshine. Its mission statement, to be bigger than Four Weddings, was realised in full as it effortlessly soared past its forebear to become Britain’s biggest grossing film of all time.
Notting Hill: ***