WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: When globally-famous film actress Anna Scott walks into the London bookshop run by William Thacker – aka ‘Floppy’ – he’s smitten and does everything in his power to keep her in the capital. However, her life is complicated not only by an actor boyfriend but by the press following her every move; William, meanwhile, has to contend with the fascinated responses of his friends and family and the idiotic machinations of his Welsh lodger, Spike.
Many people number Roman Holiday among their favourite romantic films, a sublime combination of casting, location and plot with an aching conclusion that manages to be heart-breaking and curiously satisfying at the same time. So what better for Richard Curtis to use as a basis for his follow-up to Four Weddings and a Funeral, albeit with a modern spin for a celebrity-obsessed age?
Divorcee William Thacker (Hugh Grant) lives a comfy but romantically and financially unprofitable life in the titular London location with a travel bookshop (a shop that sells books about travel, not a mobile store) and a slovenly Welsh lodger called Spike (Rhys Ifans). Into the shop walks Anna Scott (Julia Roberts), taking a break from being the most famous actress in the world, and William is instantly enchanted – though it takes an accidental and messy second meeting for sparks to fly between them.
Through a series of abortive meetings William gains an insight into Anna’s hectic and very public life, while Anna experiences a different kind of abnormality in the shape of William’s hopeless friends, loving couple Max and wheelchair-bound Bella (Tim McInnerny and Gina McKee), bumptious stockbroker Bernie (Hugh Bonneville) and William’s voluble little sister Honey (Emma Chambers). The couple find themselves drawn ever closer to each other but endless complications arise: Anna’s presumptive boyfriend Jeff (Alec Baldwin) flies in and ruins the party for a couple of months; then Spike blabs about Anna staying over, causing the paparazzi to descend on Notting Hill. Then, just when all seems set fair, William overhears Anna dismissing him in front of another actor, leading William to spurn Anna’s apologetic plea for him to love her. With the help of his friends, William realises he has made a dreadful mistake – but with the star imminently due to leave London, it’s implausible that he can get across town in time to reveal his true feelings.
There are many incidental pleasures to be found in Notting Hill, whether from the efficient exploitation of Grant’s awkwardness (shown best in the series of interviews he’s forced to conduct at Anna’s hotel) or the actions of the loons that surround him, of whom Ifans’ unruly Spike is undoubtedly the king. His carefree manner and grotty energy create the vast majority of the film’s humour, and together with Honey and James Dreyfus’ effete shop assistant Martin he helps to keep the mood relatively light and fluffy.
The idiosyncrasies of the secondary cast help to distract us from the fact that the main story is actually pretty thin: Grant’s William is touching and quite believable as a once-bitten twice-shy kind of guy, but doesn’t have the gumption of Gregory Peck (whose role, incidentally, was slated for Grant’s namesake Cary); and although Julia Roberts is unspeakably lovely, she’s clearly no Hepburn and her character is a confused jumble of unpredictable motivations and sudden accusations, one minute shunning the limelight, the next clinging to it for all she’s worth. It’s to Roberts’ credit that she manages to make Anna resemble a real person at all, and more so that she and Grant have a decent chemistry that survives long gaps between meetings and makes the super-happy payoff palatable. Unfortunately, much of that chemistry is swamped in syrupy pop tunes that were voguish at the time but now date the film (anyone still following the fortunes of Another Level?).
Then you have the problem of déjà vu. For anyone coming at Notting Hill without first seeing Four Weddings this is a moot point – and perhaps the fairest way of looking at the film – but for the rest of us it’s very difficult not to watch this movie and compare Grant’s bumbling William with his earlier bumbling Charles, Roberts (favourably) with Andie MacDowell, Honey with Scarlett (Chambers adding the scattiness of Alice from TV show The Vicar of Dibley), Bernie with James Fleet’s Tom, and Bella’s faulty legs with Charles’s brother’s faulty hearing. Grant can hardly be blamed for being asked to do what he does best, but the re-occurrence of so many Four Weddings riffs hints at a slightly narrow spectrum of experience from writer Richard Curtis. True, his characters may hint at worthy subjects such as the Sudan and debt relief in Africa (both close to Comic Relief founder Curtis’s heart), but they are still a comfortable, desperately trendy bunch of people. It’s telling that the cinematic Notting Hill is distinctly Caucasian – I don’t believe the famous carnival is mentioned at all – so it’s little wonder that Spike, idiotic Welshman though he may be, stands out as someone different.
All this sounds very tough on the film, but unlike the surprise success of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill was clearly a big money production with its eyes on big box office, so deserves a bit of a grilling. There’s no denying that with the star quality of Julia Roberts and the trite pop score a distinctly transatlantic sheen has been put on the British romantic comedy, and I personally find this regrettable. However, there’s also no denying that the film contains plenty of both romance and comedy and is a perfectly pleasant way to pass two hours; though if you haven’t seen Roman Holiday in a while, I’d be inclined to dig that out first.