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Retrospective Film Review: Notting Hill

Sunday 30 March 2014
Words Spindle

It may be an unashamedly transparent attempt to cash in on the runaway success of Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral five years previously, it may depict the London wonderland from the perspective of well-heeled, unicultural middle-classers, it may even strain credibility that bit too far despite its obvious fairytale ambitions, but Notting Hill is a great film for three reasons.

Firstly, it’s tremendously well performed. Yes, Hugh’s Grantisms have since entered into the physical lexicon of bumbling British behaviour, and Julia Roberts’ Anna Scott may oscillate wildly between doe-eyed and love-lorn and cantankerously diva-ish, but there’s undeniable chemistry between his reclusive book shopkeeper and her Hollywood Queen. Just look again at the famous “just a girl standing in front of a boy” scene towards the end of the movie. It’s not only heartbreaking because Will is turning down the girl he loves. Roberts and Grant don’t play the demise of the relationship, they play the ugly reveal of the reality of their dreams. You watch Anna and Will’s amazement and sorrow at how this is going to end. Incidentally, I love the little interruptions – the unknowing customer instantly turned away from a browse, Will’s Mother on the phone – yes, they’re comic devices, but they also help to hammer home the idea of a world still spinning when yours seems to be winding down.

Secondly, there’s a low-key but superb supporting cast. Hugh Bonneville, Tim McInnery and Gina McKee make great friends, confidants, advisors. They’re wonderful characters, maybe not as deeply written as one might like, but the performances are what give them their dramatic weight. Again, as an example, look at the brownie scene. In their attempt to bid for the last cake we get testimony from Bernie (resigned), Honey (breezy), Bella (sincere then confessional), Will (via Max, playful), Anna (revealing), all presided over by Max’s watchful, steady hand. The writing – and it’s brief, a couple of pages at most – isn’t great. Too much is crammed in too short a space, but emotionally, we travel a great distance. The lighthearted mood is punctured not once, but twice, before relaxing once more into the easy charm of the circle. It’s no mean feat to enable an audience to engage with these characters from two minutes of dialogue.

Finally, Notting Hill is more than just a love story. It reminds us that life doesn’t like complexity. Like some great mathematical equation computing away backstage, behind the curtain, propelling all life and existence onward, it insists – Occam’s Razor-like – on the shortest distance between two points. But it also tells us that if we have the strength of conviction to change things, we may indeed alter our own orbit and resist the predetermined gravitational pull with the help of those we love. Alone in his flat, Will might have never realised his mistake in turning Anna down, but sitting in Tony’s failed restaurant, the issue is put before the council. His friends are determined to remain supportive to the last, but it’s Spike who about-turns from buffoon to sage. The resulting chase across town is purest fluff of course, but there’s a resonating, hyper-real ending in which, through montage, we see the fairytale achieve a satisfying closure. Notting Hill is smarter than you think and almost certainly more affecting than you remember.

Words: Ash Verjee