The Critics: Every film-goer's dream
Notting Hill Director: Roger Michell Starring: Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Rhys Ifans (123 mins; 15)
Sunday 23 May 1999
I'm not going to give it a rave review, but I can't deny that, after all the hype, I was agreeably surprised. There's a good deal wrong with it, and its flaws aren't so negligible that criticising them is mere sourpuss nitpicking. Yet - and I don't remember when this was last true of a British film - it miraculously does get the essentials right.
Notting Hill is a fantasy and, as with all fantasies, it works best if its wish-fulfilment dream chances to coincide with yours. Truffaut once claimed that, in the fabrication of a film - during the scriptwriting process, on the set, at the editing-table, whenever - there invariably occurs a "privileged moment", a euphoria-inducing epiphany when you just know you're onto something special. Notting Hill's privileged moment came early, when the idea first popped into Richard Curtis's head. I mean the idea of an ordinary chap - or rather, given how audience identification functions, a flattering simulacrum of an ordinary chap, a foppishly gauche London bookseller through whose hair one would love to run barefoot - finding his life turned upside-down when a famous, glamorous, insecure Hollywood screen goddess walks straight into it, as into a lamp post.
Personally, I'm a total sucker for such a fantasy. In fact, I'm not ashamed to admit that I've actually had it. Long before I'd heard of Notting Hill, I would fantasise about a dishy movie star - precisely who is my business - harassed, like Julia Roberts, by a horde of paparazzi, then knocking at my front door in distress and asking to spend the night in my flat. Even now, thinking about it makes me - well, never mind, but I defy anyone who has ever entertained such a fantasy (and it's hard to imagine a moviegoer who hasn't) to remain crabbily unseduced by Notting Hill. And that's the secret of the enormous success that, whatever one thinks of it, the film is destined to enjoy.
It helps that Roberts and Grant are lusciously matched. Yes, he does his sometimes gratingly adorable Hugh Grant thing and, yes, she's made to stand a lot on humdrum West London thresholds, glowingly self-sufficient, the film freezing for a split second so we can all gasp in unison. But they really do have a sexual chemistry together (though why do we say "chemistry"? The word surely is "biology") and pass the definitive test of all erotic screen couplings: one would like to go to bed with both of them at once.
Those flaws, now. Most of them are traceable to Curtis's screenplay which, if frequently very funny (there's a wonderful press junket scene at the Ritz, where Grant is forced to impersonate a journalist from Horse and Hound), just as frequently betrays his incapacity to transcend the leave- 'em-laughing snappiness of the television sitcom. He's a short-order gagman, prepared to sacrifice consistency if it means chalking up another easy giggle. In one early scene Grant corrects his assistant's mispronunciation of the name "Topol". Later, in the course of the above-mentioned junket, interviewing a precocious movie brat who mentions having made a film with Leonardo DiCaprio, he twittishly asks her, "And have you worked with any other Italian directors?" He knows who Topol is but thinks Leonardo DiCaprio is an Italian director? Come on. (It's not even that good a joke.)
Much the same complacent, if-it-ain't-broke-why-fix-it approach is adopted to characterisation (but the history of the cinema, and indeed of all the arts, is the history of innovative artists who elected to fix what wasn't broken), with Curtis, as in his TV work, staking everything on the very moot charm of a very British species of personal, sexual and professional inadequacy.
It's clear, for example, that Grant's William Thacker couldn't sell a book if his mortgage depended on it (which, curiously, it appears not to do). If his best friend hosts an intimate dinner party, then naturally he's a lousy cook: cue black smoke billowing from the oven. If another friend is a stockbroker, then, as expected, he turns out to be the only incompetent, uncharismatic, non-champagne-quaffing stockbroker in the City. Curtis probably imagines that he has thereby avoided all the usual stereotypes, but, really, he ought to know by now that, in the context of British comedy, these are the stereotypes.
Ultimately, then, Notting Hill is not a writer's film at all, and certainly not a director's (Michell does what's required of him, neither more nor less, and one can't help wondering what the late Jacques Demy might have made of the same material - Les Parapluies de Portobello?). It's a beguiling, cunningly crafted vehicle for Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, and it's for them that it should be seen.
And how is Notting Hill itself portrayed? Are property values going to be affected? Let me put it this way: my flat is double-glazed, muffling all the less salubrious noises of Portobello Road's trendy, gaudy, raffish but also raucous street life. And the film is double-glazed, too.
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