Sparkling romance at a deliberate British pace10/10
It may be a paradox to say that a film can sparkle slowly, yet that's the only way I can describe this charming romantic comedy. The star(dom)-crossed lovers don't know that they are Meant For Each Other ... yes, this is the standard RomCom setup. But the -way- they don't know? That is put across in a most British and deliberate pace and setting. And it makes the ending that we all know is coming gather color and charm.
"Notting Hill" takes over a third of its running time to show William (Hugh Grant) as he is immersed in his daily life, wanting to be supportive of his friends, yet searching for his own inner life. The five closest friends all show something he lacks: "happy" conformity, a loving marriage transcending obstacles, a sister who takes bold risks for finding love, and a roommate that sees through pretense and says so (and, yes, is delightfully vulgar).
That very British character-in-a-wry-setting pattern borrows from "Four Weddings and a Funeral," but the only friends there that I could consistently believe -mattered- to Grant's character were the gay couple, one comic, the other showing profound emotion. Here, all of the lead character's circle deeply cares about him, as he does about them. This makes all the difference.
Where it matters most is in giving him support when the American film beauty (Julia Roberts) comes into his life, then out, then in, then ... and all in ways that are believable for such dissimilar lovers. The romantic turns are more plausible because Grant's character has such support and a place for sharing his emotional roller-coaster ride. He isn't crushed by the down moments, but picks up his individuality and moves on. And his friends tell him, sometimes with only searching looks, just when he's picked up -too much- of being on his own. (Okay, the moment towards the end when Spike puts his exasperation into three pointed, even vulgar, words is a refreshing change. Sometimes, when a friend lets loose with the pithy truth, it hits the needed spot.)
All this backstory, character richness, and pointed use of the "right" words are British qualities that we don't get with the standard American RomCom setup.
Gina McKee's turn here as Grant's wheelchair-bound female friend is of someone with deeply felt individuality and unique perceptiveness, including her own tender perspective on loves past and present - especially her husband. It's a glimpse into a woman with distinctive qualities that -she- has chosen. This makes her both appealing to all her friends, and forceful by quiet understatement. She also ends up being much funnier, when you've rewound the tape and end up thinking about the story. (Listen for her spoken turn on "standing up." No, it's not a cheap play on her limitations. Not in context. And that's subtle comic acting.)
Richard Curtis's inventive screenplay is one of the best in years, and would reward a look in book form as well. He takes this backdrop of supportive friends, puts in the sparkle of Roberts invading and shaking up their world, and creates a skein of personal truths and imposed celebrity nonsense.
Grant and Roberts are both passionate and bemused observers of the absurdities of fame that end up surrounding them, but they act this out in comic byplay and inventive responses. This isn't an American breakneck-pace (or "screwball") comedy, and their subtle discovery of each other's -minds- and substance wouldn't work in such a setting.
Roberts has both the easy familiarity with and the hair-trigger of frustration from fame, both coming out to undermine her when she least expects it. But she shows that she can grow and learn from her mistakes. (Unlike her well-acted but overexplained realization at the end of "Runaway Bride.") She even has one scene -sans- makeup that is a genuine romantic turning point. I don't see many other actresses being willing to try that.
Grant shows an astonishing inner strength and self-awareness, not being willing to hide how -he- sees reality. (He did the same realistic turn in "Four Weddings," but didn't try nearly as effectively to figure himself out.)
The photography and settings show off London beautifully, and the story's interior scenes make highly imaginative use of a narrow, stacked-up Notting Hill mini-townhouse.
I do feel the director fails to take up some opportunities to build on the comic or dramatic moments in the screenplay. He coasts on the words. They're excellent words, but they need a twist at times.
My only take-off-a-point[*] quibble is with the music. It's mostly popular tunes that underscore the action. One of these is luminous, and frames the story perfectly - Elvis Costello's cover of "She." Others, though, use their lyrics to overstress plot points. Some are performed too high in volume, sometimes lapping against dialogue.
(The two original themes by Trevor Jones are beautiful, lushly written, and quite fitting to the main characters. We should have had more of his work, but they're less than a fourth of the film's music.)
The British often put more creativity below the narrative surface and into the setting than Americans do, and often get beyond formula. To discover this in a film is joyous. You'll feel this when you find yourself compelled to see this deeply felt, yet very funny, film twice, thrice, or more. For me, it's still delightful after nine months and nine viewings.
[* Edited on 21 April 2011: After another decade and another ten viewings, this love story has only become more resonant and beautiful. The pop-song choices feel notably less obtrusive. The acting of both Roberts and Grant has evinced more depth. And I see no reason to not give it a full 10 rating.]