I remember when I was about seven, Mum took us to Pizza Hut in a nearby town because they were doing a deal where you would buy a large pizza and receive either a VHS copy of the new Julia Roberts rom com “Notting Hill” or the new animated film “Antz”. Mum chose “Notting Hill” and I was super pissed, gave her the silent treatment all the way home. Looking back on it though, I have such wonderful memories of watching “Notting Hill” as a kid. I knew that it was for the grown ups, I didn’t quite understand what was so funny about Hugh Grant asking somebody whether Leonardo DiCaprio was their favourite Italian film director but I enjoyed being invited to the party and being allowed to watch something that was M 15+. We all have those films which we love for the memories they generate and childhood nostalgia, but watch again some years later and appreciate on an entirely different level with the benefit of experience and knowledge.
Roger Mihell directed 1999’s “Notting Hill”, but it’s largely accredited as one of the jewels in scriptwriter Richard Curtis’ rom-com crown, the others of course including “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, “Bridget Jones’ Diary”, “Love Actually” and the Mr Bean series. “Notting Hill” taps into that common thread of Curtis’ style; this film is pure fantasy, a modern fairy tale that knows its not steeped in the real world but offers instead complete and unadulterated escapism with proper movie star performances in a world heavily diluted with rose tinted glasses and a stellar soundtrack. The premise is fairly simple; Hugh Grant plays travel book store owner William Thacker, who meets the most famous movie star in the world Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) when she comes into his store and the film follows their forthcoming love story.
I can remember thinking when I was a kid that Hugh Grant was the coolest guy I had ever seen, so much so that on a school camp in Year 11 when I was asked who I aspired to be as a grown up I answered with Charles from “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. And today, watching the film again I can still completely understand why; William Thacker is the epitome of 90’s Hugh Grant, from the floppy hair to the bumbling charm, awkward humour and the big toothy smile. This all plays into the fantasy element of the film; Thacker owns a failing travel book store but still owns a three storey beaut of a house in the middle of Notting Hill. His friends are all zany and fun (the supporting cast in this film is sensational), but have designer houses and great taste in art, furniture and have bougie dinner parties with lots of red wine. Even the burglar Rufus (Dylan Moran) in one of the earlier book store scenes has an upper middle class accent and a tie.
Julia Roberts is cast perfectly as Anna Scott, who else at the time would have been better to play the biggest and most famous film star in the world? The pair as romantic comedy leads have solid chemistry and bounce well off each other. She doesn’t portray Anna as utter perfection or overly sweet, which is what happened with Andie MacDowel in “Four Weddings” who annoyed the shit out of audiences. Anna is beautiful, charming and dazzling in an old school movie star kind of way but is also flawed, selfish, short tempered and flighty. One line I never really appreciated before is where William and Anna are in bed together, and she tells him that Rita Hayworth used to say “They go to bed with Hilda; they wake up with me… men went to bed with the dream; they didn’t like it when they would wake up with the reality”.
The script itself is witty, quintessentially British and so funny; I laughed constantly upon rewatching this movie over this last weekend (I need to start saying “Oh Holy Fuck” more in everyday conversation, I think I’d be guaranteed a solid laugh). Richard Curtis has an undeniable knack for writing dialogue, but also for writing genuinely likeable characters who you would love to have over for dinner yourself. The romantic aspects of the film are intentionally corny, complete with “I’m also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her” and the film’s climax with William telling Anna he was wrong and asking her to stay in front of most of London’s press. It’s all a bit silly but who cares? Fairy tales aren’t supposed to be relatable or believable; I don’t necessarily identify with William Thacker but I still think he’s cool and I still aspire to pull off the open collared dress shirt look with the sleeves rolled up only half way up his forearm as well as he can.
This is up there as one of my favourite films. “Notting Hill” is cheesy and funny and unrealistic, but its unapologetic about it and tells a relatively unremarkable story with wit, heart and a genuine, palpable charm. Movies like these are important; “Notting Hill” isn’t philosophically or existentially radical and isn’t seeking to make any sort of profound statement, but its sweet and funny and happy and sometimes that’s exactly what we need.
By Jock Lehman