In the blithe and exhilarating romantic comedy Notting Hill, famous American movie star Julia Roberts plays famous American movie star Anna Scott, who, in a rare publicist-free moment in London, glides into the little shop of unfamous bookseller William Thacker, played by famous (but not quite as famous) English movie star Hugh Grant. William is British enough not to go gaga over his extraordinary customer. But he’s not quite so blase that he doesn’t fall in love with her.
Notting Hill is the story of how a self-protective princess and a self-absorbed commoner find happiness together. It’s a winningly optimistic fantasy about the power of charm and pulchritude to prevail over common sense, the lack of shared hobbies, and geographic obstacles. It’s pointedly funny about the ludicrous realities of entertainment, journalism and their sometimes oxymoronic hybrid. It takes an intrinsically democratic, American, Roman Holiday-style approach to celebrity: In a meritocracy, everyone’s got a crack at capturing the heart of a royal personage.
And yet, starting with the opaque title — a reference to the ethnically diverse London neighborhood in which William lives and works, notorious in the 1950s as a site of racial unrest and now a highly gentrified and trendy melting pot — Notting Hill is also the utterly British invention of the superb screenwriter Richard Curtis, creator of the 1994 hit Four Weddings and a Funeral, after which this confection is so heavily molded.
Grant made a name for himself, of course, in Four Weddings; since then, his own celebrity has been advanced more by his liaisons with actress Elizabeth Hurley and streetwalker Divine Brown than by his thespian range. Curtis and director Roger Michell take advantage of Grant’s gossip-propelled reputation by presenting William as the most un-headline-worthy of proles — someone who is so forgettable that even his wife has dumped him. Now the eminently eligible “loser” gets by on the kindness of a dotty sister (Emma Chambers, in a role similar to that of Charlotte Coleman in Four Weddings) and a warm circle of delightful Weddings-ish friends. For extra color, the bachelor rooms with a daft Welsh slacker (Rhys Ifans), who would doubtless have been a Weddings player had Curtis not filled the shtick slot instead with Rowan Atkinson as a malaprop-prone vicar.
In a rewarding refinement of the Four Weddings premise, William’s robust English sense of entitlement is such that he’s in love with himself, a snob — attractive, but still a snob — for whom only the world’s most rarefied American movie star will do. (Andie MacDowell was merely a mannequin. Now the stakes are raised.) When Anna walks into William’s cluttered bookshop (an admirably failing independent establishment not unlike the cute children’s store romanticized in You’ve Got Mail), naturally these two beautiful people meet and melt. This is how romance among “mortals” is supposed to work in the movies! The legendarily luminous Julia Roberts represents the pinnacle of movie stardom, in a confident performance that’s the sum and payoff of everything she has ever learned, the hard way, about being Julia Roberts. Indeed, no other actress could pull off the role with such appeal and authority — not with Roberts’ likable combination of dewiness and skittishness, warmth and inaccessibility, intractability and suggestion of regret that she is, alas, the world’s highest-paid, most tightly caged actress rather than free and anonymous and back home in Georgia.
Anna, who has developed the sensitive radar the famous rely on to detect the presence of gawkers, warms slowly to William’s brand of sincerity. He woos her, in fact, with his “ordinariness”; she’s won over by a home-cooked dinner with his friends. But Curtis is also canny enough to know that when Anna snaps (ambushed outside her suitor’s door, she’s convinced that his roommate tipped off the paparazzi), she’s as capable of destructive behavior as bad gossip items regularly, gleefully suggest.
Yet Notting Hill also believes in an ideal world in which even the privileged are entitled to happiness. And in this, director Roger Michell (who made 1995’s beautiful Persuasion) collaborates unapologetically, creating a utopian urban society in which lovers surmount all obstacles, friends supply the constancy of family, and independent bookstores survive. In one scene of transporting tenderness, Anna and William share a moment in a verdant London park — a private park, pointedly, requiring a key for entrance, which they crash by scaling the fence. The two share murmurings and then break from one another, into twinned, separate bubbles of fabulousness. Anna sits on a bench, William stands a few steps away. The camera pulls back and up, up, up. For a moment, it is we, the moviegoers, who are the divinities among the stars in heaven. We are looking down on a love match between stars on earth. And with the great magnanimity of the masses, we gladly bestow our blessing on the unmeek. A-