Monday 7 August 2017

Movie Review: Notting Hill (1999)

A romantic comedy, Notting Hill is heavy on star power and ambiance, with enough moments of humour to help navigate an overlong running time.

International movie star Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) is in London to promote her latest film. She visits the bookstore owned and operated by the divorced Will Thacker (Hugh Grant) in the Notting Hill neighbourhood. After another accidental sidewalk encounter involving spilled orange juice, Anna and Will share a kiss and start a tentative low-key relationship. Will's eccentric roommate Spike (Rhys Ifans), his friends Max (Tim McInnerny) and Bella (Gina McKee), and his starstruck sister Honey (Emma Chambers) can barely believe what Will is up to.

But soon reality intervenes in the form of Anna's Hollywood boyfriend Jeff King (an uncredited Alec Baldwin), and Will gets on with his life. But Anna suddenly reappears at his apartment, seeking refuge from an exploding scandal involving pre-stardom nude pictures. Will has to decide whether a relationship with one of the most famous women in the world is worth the trouble.

With Roberts and Grant both close to their peak wattage as big screen stars, Notting Hill benefits from an endless supply of photogenic opportunities. Director Roger Michell adopts languid pacing, allowing the romance to blossom at a measured, almost hesitant speed, but more importantly always lingering on the attractive faces of his two leads for just a bit longer than each scene should allow.

The other star of the film is the community of Notting Hill, the film setting up in a trendy corner of London and making best use of a location less obstructed by tourist traps and enlivened by natural street activity and charming architecture.

The Roger Curtis script avoids many of the genre's worst traps. Will's competition for Anna's heart is not another man or a series of contrived misunderstandings. Rather, her status as one of the planet's most admired women sits uneasily with his reality as a modest store owner with quirky friends who sit around the table arguing about who has the saddest life. Straddling the divide between the manufactured glitz of Hollywood and the authenticity of everyday life is the challenge facing this romance.

Julia Roberts essentially plays herself and does a fine job. She generates plenty of apparently genuine down-to-earth emotion, but always allows room for the character of Anna to be in potentially acting mode. Hugh Grant reins in his roguish tendencies and stays well within himself while allowing the sensitivity of an often disappointed man to shine through.

After a couple of unnecessary machinations that push the running time past two hours, Notting Hill does end with the perfunctory madcap race-against-time for the two lovers to have their final encounter. It's a better-than-most romantic comedy, but it's still a romantic comedy.

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