Watching Notting Hill, it’s impossible to forget that the woman playing Anna Scott, an American movie star trying to elude the suffocating grip of international celebrity, is actually Julia Roberts, a beloved if not critically well-regarded actress whose status as gossip industry fodder overshadows her work onscreen.
Or that Anna’s love interest, down-at-his-heels bookstore owner William Thacker, is actually Hugh Grant, whose biggest exposure since Four Weddings and a Funeral was a highly publicized dalliance with a Los Angeles prostitute.
So Notting Hill, a romantic comedy that’s as carefully spun, sugary sweet and lightweight as cotton candy, serves a dual purpose. It provides Roberts and Grant the opportunity to slip into tailor-made roles which emphasize their strengths (charm, vulnerability) instead of weaknesses (limited range), and puts a little needed polish on their tarnished public images.
Screenwriter Richard Curtis (Four Weddings) and director Roger Michell (Persuasion) do their best to make Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant lovable again, and they succeed through a careful combination of romantic fantasy and emotionally approachable performances.
Told primarily through William’s point of view, Notting Hill begins on the day Anna walks into his struggling travel bookstore. She’s coolly distant; he’s bumbling and effusive. Some sparks fly. In movie logic, this isn’t just a pleasant chance encounter, but true love.
Anna seems perfectly fine with the idea of climbing down from her pedestal for a while and hanging out with everyday folk like William’s quaintly scruffy friends or his roommate, the slothlike Spike (Rhys Ifans). But her fame, with its obligations and sacrifices, just keeps getting in the way, and the filmmakers do a good job of showing just how much separates Anna from William, especially how their ignorance of the other’s worldview leads to hurtful misunderstandings.
Excellent use of London locations – particularly the marketplace stalls of Portobello Road – may give this film the sheen of reality, but don’t let that fool you. Notting Hill is a fairy tale about the celluloid goddess who finds happiness on earth with a lowly mortal. Just ask Elizabeth Taylor how it turns out.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].