There is a lot not to like about Notting Hill, the 1999 rom-com written by Richard Curtis and directed by Roger Michell (whose new comedy Morning Glory is in cinemas now). Its cloying and manipulative with a schmaltzy pop soundtrack, obvious gags and crushingly conventional plotting. Its twee and middle class and oh so very safe as it follows the struggles of ordinary Englishman William Thacker (Hugh Grant) as he embarks on a chance relationship with worlds biggest movie star Anna Scott played unconvincingly by the worlds biggest movie star Julia Roberts. The central premise is pretty silly. Not the idea that an actor might want to get with one of us humble folk Im sure that happens all the time but that Hugh Grants comfortably off, upper middle-class London bookshop owner is ordinary. Im sure he is Richard Curtis and Hugh Grants idea of ordinary, and his lot in life is probably as lowly as either one of as either one of those Public School boys could condescend to imagine, but an everyman story this is not. Nor do I find Julia Roberts an especially likable presence in the film, in which everyone sucks up to her character as though they were toadying up to Royalty (as I imagine Curtis would at a Royal Variety Performance). She is brutally cold, self-absorbed and humourless much of the time and the only reason we seem to have for Grants fascination with her is that she is famous and beautiful. So this isnt an especially enlightened view of relationships or true love either. William Thacker seems much too nice and well-adjusted to want to be with her, only movie convention demands that she is the one. Furthermore, as scores of commentators pointed out upon the theatrical release, the film does a truly rubbish job of highlighting the great ethnic and culturally diversity of that part of London. Notting Hill may be famous for its carnival led by members of the Afro-Caribbean community, but that event is never mentioned in the film, which instead chooses to view the area in a more export-friendly way through a distorted and fanciful lens which repaints everything as a broad caricature of an irrelevant and possibly completely fictional version of Britishness. There are only two speaking parts for black supporting actors and both are seen away from Notting Hill (in fact one of them is an American and so a foreigner). The case against Notting Hill then is a great one. However, there is something disarmingly likable about this film. Hugh Grant plays his affable little bumbler in a way which is charming and there are a few moments when his reading of the more dramatic dialogue is genuinely rather good, cutting to the heart of the moments emotional honesty amid all the knob gags and horrific Oirish Ronan Keatings balladeering. And the supporting cast is superb as it includes Gina McKee, Tim McInnerny, Emma Chambers and Hugh Bonneville, as well as Rhys Ifans and Alec Baldwin (who is pretty brilliant). These supporting players add a little bit of weight to some of the most calculated scenes of pathos in the film and even prompt the odd tear when you least expect it. Say what you will about Richard Curtis he certainly couldnt write a Ken Loach movie but his upper middle-class twits do always ring true. You might want to bash some of them around the head with a brick, but the sorts of people he writes about in his films, such as this and Four Weddings and a Funeral, do exist and in Curtis hands these assorted batty, disconnected and ever-so-awkward people are kind of endearingly pathetic. Roger Michell should also get some credit for moments like the single-take, unbroken tracking shot that summarises Thackers year of post-break-up misery in a couple of minutes as we see the seasons change around him and watch his demeanour remain consistent. I see the flaws in Notting Hill. It is flimflam. But its really quite winsome and watchable flimflam all the same and it would be churlish of me to pretend otherwise.
ExtrasThere are some nice extras on the Blu-ray release. Nothing stellar, but there are twelve minutes of pleasant and gently funny deleted scenes the pick of which sees William attempt to tell his upper middle-class parents about his relationship with Anna only to find that they have no idea who she is. There is also an excised sequence in which he goes on a date with a kooky lady played by the excellent comedy actress Sally Phillips, some more scenes with Rhys Ifans and an alternate ending. Then there is a fifteen minute made for TV documentary called Spotlight on Location which takes a standard look at the making of the film with contributions from the cast and crew. Also on the disc is a fairly funny four minute feature called Hugh Grants Movie Tips in which the actors goes around the set having some good natured banter with members of the crew. There is no point to this whatsoever, but Grant comes across very well and its watchable. A three minute feature called Walk Down Portobello Road is also included, which just looks at the on-location shooting, with specific attention paid to a tracking shot which sees Grant walk through the Notting Hill market as the seasons change around him. Finally, there are two music videos: Elvis Costello singing She and Shania Twain doing Youve Got a Way (no Ronan Keating?). Oddly a trailer isnt included and some of the original old DVD extras are missing (though nothing of interest). The biggest omission here is the commentary which was present on the HD DVD release of the film. The fact that its not here is bafflingly to say the least. Notting Hill is released on Blu-ray today.
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