Director: Roger Michell
Cast: Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Rhys Ifans
Watch Notting Hill online in the UK: Amazon Prime Video / iTunes / Amazon Instant Video / Google Play / Sky Store
Between his chameleonic turn in Cloud Atlas, his generous supporting role in Florence Foster Jenkins and his hilarious self-aware performance in Paddington 2, Hugh Grant is in very real danger of becoming a national treasure. It’s a rise that has occurred almost in exact tandem with the drop in the amount he cares what people think of him: the minute he dropped the nervous, floppy-haired persona and started calling out media corruption is the moment he fully won the nation’s hearts.
And yet you have to go back to those nervous, floppy-haired days to see the point at which he began to win them in the first place. Tied inseparably to Richard Curtis’ genre-defining rom-coms, it’s a period of British cinema that put the UK on the mainstream international map in the way that a handful of breakout films do once or twice a decade. And without a doubt, Notting Hill is at its very apex. Hot on the heels of Four Weddings and a Funeral, which saw Hugh Grant play a nervous, floppy-haired Brit who falls for a rich American woman, it stuck to what worked: Hugh Grant plays a nervous, floppy-haired Brit who falls for a rich American woman.
The result was far from surprising, as travel bookshop owner William (Grant) fell for Hollywood star Anna (Julia Roberts), beginning an on-off affair that would hurt and delight them both. It took place, as Curtis’ films do, in a dubiously white version of London, full of eccentric middle-class types and no mention of the Notting Hill Carnival. It featured people swearing in plummy accents and uttering stammered apologies, meet-cutes and quirky dates that involved cinema trips and prescription scuba diving goggles. It was peak Richard Curtis – but also Richard Curtis at his peak, just at the point before his now familiar take on life would descend into cliche and borderline self-parody.
What is surprising, though, is how well it all works – and how much charm and genuine emotion the film manages to squeeze from its formulaic plot. That’s partly thanks to script, which finds honesty among the stereotypes: Anna’s life as an actress is faithfully captured on screen, from the knowledge that her looks (achieved through surgery) will fade and her fame will one day mean nothing to the way she is moved from one project to the next, much like the film journalists at the realistically rendered press junket (hello to Horse & Hound). Together with genuine frustration and heartbreak, they make sure Anna is more than just an object of desire, while still allowing room for Rhys Ifans’ star-making supporting role as Spike, William’s scene-stealing slob of a flatmate.
But it’s the leading couple who make it spark, from Roberts’ deceptively nuanced send-up of herself to Hugh Bonneville and Geena Davis as part of William’s amiable oddball acquaintances. Grant, meanwhile, is gorgeously sincere, stumbling his way through the usual mannerisms but never becoming forced or – worse – lazy. While it’s a pleasure to see him move beyond that persona in his later career, looking back at him in full flow is still as charming as ever. His journey towards national treasuredom had just begun.
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