Notting Hill

Year: 1999
Production Co: Polygram Filmed Entertainment
Director: Roger Michell
Writer: Richard Curtis
Cast: Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Rhys Ifans, Dylan Moran, Hugh Bonneville, Alec Baldwin

For the longest time I thought this was a Richard Curtis movie, getting a big surprise when I finally watched it almost two decades after it came out to see it actually from Roger Michell, the director who's films always remind me of fine china that never gets used – extremely high quality but deathly musty and boring.

With Curtis as the screenwriter, Michell is let a bit off the leash. Partly it's because of the modern rom-com conceit, and partly because it features Hugh Grant playing the same role that made him a star in Four Weddings and a Funeral a few years before – charming, shaggy dog-sexy, bumbling and teetering eternally on the edge of terminal embarrassment.

He plays failing travel bookshop owner William, minding his own business when American movie star Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) comes into his store wearing dark glasses and staying successfully incognito while on a break from filming nearby.

Their interaction as she buys one of his books is brief and stilted, Roberts playing the star as a completely closed book, all curt, simple answers and a guarded manner, and that seems like the extent of her presence in his life. But when William literally bumps into Anna on the street later, pouring a drink all over her, he offers to let her into his house to change and freshen up – if only his barely housetrained Welsh flatmate and comic relief Spike (Rhys Ifans) can stay out of the way.

Inexplicably and out of the blue as they're saying goodbye at the door, Anna plants a passionate kiss on William's lips, and so begins one of the most delicately pursued love affairs in the history of movies.

Over the course of the what seems like the next hour, Anna and Will dance around her fame and his uncertainly about it all as her schedule allows, and the curious thing about the way it plays out is that her countenance never seems to crack. If it was a serious drama you'd wonder if she even felt anything for him.

There are so many subplots about Will's crazy family and their foibles, failings and relationships it's dreadfully flabby, seeming like Michell shot every scene Curtis wrote in his first draft and jammed them all in the edit. There's so much going on for so long, you wonder what was actually left out.

Just one example is the women Will lets his family set him up with when all seems lost with Anna. After a lot of psychos he meets a lady who seems lovely, understanding and interested, but after the date's over she's never mentioned again.

Second, it seems like Curtis wanted to try that romantic drama challenge so many have failed at. We know the boy and girl have to end up together, but how do you do that in a way nobody expects? In going in so many different directions to muddy the waters, it just makes the whole thing a confusing quagmire.

Roberts has nothing to do, standing ramrod straight, not letting her guard down and speaking little, and Grant coasts on what everyone loved about Four Weddings by doing it again. The cinematography, story and camerawork do indeed make a romantic fairyland of the titular London enclave, it just takes altogether too long to get to the happy ever after.

I get the sense it's only as well known as it is all these years later because the line 'I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her' became emblematic for the movie the way the orgasm scene did for When Harry Met Sally or 'Houston, we have a problem' did for Apollo 13.

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