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William Thacker (Hugh Grant), a divorced man who owns a simple travel guide book shop in, you guess it, Notting Hill, is more than a little surprised when famous film actress and international superstar Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) drops by the shop. He’s even more so when a bit later, they literally bump into each other on the street. The meet cute, she goes to home, and a kiss in the bag later, they have a proper date (at his sister’s place) and decide to start dating. It’s not so easy as she is hounded at every step by paparazzi. Oh, and she already has a boyfriend back in the states who pops over for a surprise visit. There’s some miscommunication bumbling up the works and so the new lovers face some uphill (Notting Hill?) challenges. But it all wends well, of course.
Directed by Roger Michell, Notting Hill is a very conventional romantic comedy by any standard, especially one starring Grant, but that doesn’t mean it’s not effective, just breezy and mostly unchallenging, which is surely the aim. Both leads are tremendously charming and we clamor to see them together of course, as they jump hurdles in a relationship practically none of us will ever have to deal with. And even though it seems all too familiar, we enjoy the ride and disappear for a time in the fantasy of it all. That’s the ‘magic’ in movies done right.
Roberts is the inarguable Queen of this genre and while she’s had some up and downs with it, this one works well for what it is, and even though she is essentially playing herself, she packs heaps of honesty into her performance. It would be easy to dismiss this as a whiny bit of commentary on being famous, but it reveals a little more as the story progresses and actually adds some validity to the mix. Roberts is empirically an attractive woman, thus her place in Hollywood, and in the film, there is a hardened sense that we aren’t just to presume that Anna Scott is a reflection of Roberts, but of women in movies in general. “One day my looks will go,” Scott says in the movie, “and I’ll be a sad middle-aged woman who looks like someone who was famous for a while.” Contrived? Certainly. True? Perhaps but it does have deeper meaning than it implies.
Either way, Notting Hill knows the formula and adheres to the prescription with steadfast rigidity, but when we take our medicine we want it to work. Notting Hill does. It delays the inevitable with all the right steps and makes the ending that much more impactful. Before that ending though, we get an important moment between the characters that reveals much about their relationship. Let’s take a closer look. Naturally, spoilers ahead.
Some set up. The complexities of this tale are never more entangled than a miscommunication, a common trope in the genre, but be that as it may, it has an authenticity to it. That starts with Will (Grant) arriving at Scott’s (Roberts) hotel by invitation and is surprised to learn that she is actually dating American film star Jeff King (Alec Baldwin). King is an arrogant, bombastic man who treats Will slightly, thinking he is a room-service waiter. The experience sends Will reeling and he realizes he’s in over his head with such a famous woman. She tries to explain that she thought she and King were through but Will can’t take it and leaves her alone. Over the next half a year, he attempts to distance himself from the pain through a series of bad blind dates.
It’s then when she suddenly shows up at his door. It seems a set of pre-fame nude photos of Anna have started circulating and she wants a place to lay low for a bit, and asks to spend some private time with Will. The day goes exceedingly well and they end up in bed. The timing couldn’t be worse though as the next morning the press are waiting at the front door, tipped off by Will’s naive, somewhat slackerish roomie Spike (Rhys Ifans) who walks out in his grungy undies. Angered by the incident and convinced that Will betrayed her, Anna runs off telling him that the implied scandal of her with two men will follow her forever. Worse, she states she regrets being with him.
Once again, months pass and hearts heal. Anna is back in the country to film a period piece (one Will had previously suggested she take). He goes to the set and attempts to make contact. She sees him and passes him through security, but when he’s given a set of headphones that are wired to the boom mic operating before the shoot, he overhears Anna seemingly nonchalantly telling another actor that the person in the scandal (Will) was nobody important. Crushed, Will leaves without speaking to her.
And now we come to the moment. The next day, Anna goes to his book store. She has a wrapped gift, which turns out to be Marc Chagall‘s painting La Mariée. The original and as we learned earlier, a favorite of Will’s and one that upon seeing, Ann described as “how being in love should be.” He doesn’t know what it is, and instead listens to Anna as she explains what happened, that the person she was talking to was a notorious gossiper and was trying to evade further controversy. She expresses a hope to be a couple. Will patiently listens and when she is done, he asks her, pained, if he could say no and leave it at that.
Set back by the reply, she stumbles for an answer, finally able to say yes, though it’s clearly cutting deep. She smiles, but it aches. She’s a celebrity, so it’s quite possible a rejection is unexpected, yet there is something much more transparent in her eyes. This has nothing to do with fame. She stares at the floor, a sudden realization sweeping through her that seems to hollow her out like a spilled bottle of water. She offers to go.
Will quickly jumps in to tell her his reasoning, explaining that being with her puts him in real danger because despite how perfect it seems on the outside, his inexperienced heart could not handle what he believes will certainly be another breakup. The reminders of her are everywhere with magazines and movies and such. He would never be free of her image. Meanwhile, he is a nobody and would be quickly forgotten. He lives in Notting Hill. She lives in Beverly Hills. It’s scathing. She comments that it is really a real ‘no.’
Holding her smile, the feature that has helped make her the superstar she is, she remains poised, keeping her dignity, struggling to hide the sorrow. She says, “Good decision.” But she’s not done. Gathering herself, she drops the façade and provides her own defense. “The fame,” she say, “Isn’t really real.” She looks him in the eye and the once toothy, obviously practiced smile vanishes, replaced by a warm a softer smile that is tender and vulnerable.
There is a rawness to Robert’s performance and delivery of this line that has profound effect. Truly. It’s a startling moment that is both heartbreaking and a little hard to watch. Maybe even a lot hard to watch. We want to deny that it affects us, especially since the genre is designed to be manipulative and we flat out refuse to be manipulated, yet this one reading burrows and settles inside with lasting results. We might ask what is happening here what makes it so effective, but the better observation is to ask what is not happening. First, it lacks everything that we expect, the very manipulations that have come to define the tropes. There’s not a note of music. No mournful piano. No shoe-gazing guitar. No weepy strings. It’s silence, broken only by her fragile words. The camera doesn’t move. It sits solid, framed on Roberts. There’s no soft focus, no slow zoom, no gentle turns or spins. It is motionless.
And so we are left with the actress. That constitutes a confidence in both her and the audience, especially in a film like this. This is about setups and pratfalls and large gestures and contrived dialog. To take the time to let these characters stop and have this moment is a risk, but one with rich rewards. And director Michell goes one step further by allowing Will to stand in silence when it’s done. Twelve seconds of silence. It’s a sensational moment that, in most any other film, would be filled with needless dialog because studios are afraid that audiences would have to think. She leaves and the movies continues, but the moment wholly consumes the experience.
Notting Hill is pretty standard fare for most of its story and comes to the sweet conclusion we expect, but it keeps itself a few notches above most in the pool with a truly inspired performance from Roberts who brings a lot more depth to the role than the film would suggest.
Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Richard McCabe, Alec Baldwin, Rhys Ifans