‘Notting Hill’ (1999) Review

Twenty years ago Julia Roberts had two romantic comedies released within two months of each other. The first was Notting Hill where she played Anna Scott, a famous actress who found love with an awkward but charming Brit played to perfection by Hugh Grant. The other was Runaway Bride featuring the much-anticipated reunion between Roberts and her Pretty Woman co-star, Richard Gere. While both films were box office successes, it was Notting Hill that won critical acclaim and to this day remains Roberts’s best-reviewed romantic comedy.

Having recently re-watched Runaway Bride (the review of which will appear on Rom-Com Rewind just in time for Runaway Bride’s own 20th Anniversary), I was disappointed to find the movie didn’t quite hold up in my eyes in terms of romance, or comedy the way it had in 1999 and the years after when I would pop in the DVD and watch it at home. It was because of my recent, less than enthusiastic reaction to Runaway Bride that I was reluctant to re-visit Notting Hill for this review. I didn’t want to risk potentially ruining the magic that I remember experiencing the first time I sat down in a movie theater to watch Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant fall in love.

Suffice it to say, I had nothing to worry about. 20 years later, Notting Hill, written by Richard Curtis, holds up as both a romance and a comedy, and is as charming and warm as ever, giving us a picturesque view of London and a gorgeous soundtrack.

Grant plays Will Thacker, a divorced travel bookshop owner who lives in Notting Hill with a scruffy layabout named Spike (Rhys Ifans). One day while minding the store, in walks Anna Scott, a famous American actress currently in London to promote her new movie. Will recognizes her almost immediately and attempts to play it cool but instead finds himself bumbling through a sales pitch while cornering another customer for trying to shoplift a book by shoving it down his trousers.

Needless to say, Anna is charmed by Will’s bumbling ramblings and his lack of overt machismo and smarmy innuendo that she has grown used to from other men. After an impulsive kiss, Will and Anna find themselves in a somewhat secretive, whirlwind romance that takes us on an emotional rollercoaster that doesn’t come to an end until the very last scene.

As much as I adore Grant as playboy sleazeball Daniel Cleaver in the Bridget Jones’s movies, I believe he’s truly at his best when he’s playing the stammering, affable everyman who wears his heart on his sleeve as he stumbles into love. Nobody does it better.

Julia Roberts is… well, Julia Roberts, complete with her megawatt smile and contagious laughter. She brings plenty of depth to Anna, flaws and all, and I suppose you could speculate or even assume that perhaps she brought a few her own life experiences into the role, given that around the time the movie was being filmed, Roberts was by all accounts and purposes, the most famous actress in the world.

Despite Anna’s rather horrible behavior towards Will when their relationship is unceremoniously revealed to the world by Spike, Roberts expresses such softness and vulnerability when she attempts to win Will back that you forgive her much more quickly than he does. How could you not? Especially when Anna blesses us with one of the most romantic lines ever uttered in a rom-com:

“The fame thing isn’t really real, you know. And don’t forget, I’m also just a girl standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.”

I found the rest of the cast to be just as appealing and likable as the romantic leads. Will’s eccentric sister Honey (the late Emma Chambers) and his friends feel as though they’re us, the audience, star struck and encouraging this rather unlikely romance as it blossoms. And even though Spike’s slobbery and complete lack of self-awareness is still as cringe-worthy now as it was 20 years ago, I have to admit that he’s also become rather endearing as a character as well.

I suppose it’s fair in some ways to compare Notting Hill to Four Weddings and a Funeral, also written by Curtis, but frankly, I find Notting Hill to be the far superior film. It’s more polished, it’s funnier and more importantly, Roberts and Grant’s sizzling chemistry is palpable and helps drive the believability of an otherwise unrealistic premise. They keep us emotionally invested in their journey, so much so that I was willing to overlook, and admittedly maybe even celebrate, the somewhat contrived ending.

Witty, poignant and delightfully funny and romantic, I truly believe the time has come to call Notting Hill a classic.