It’s sometimes been said that the true test of a movie star is whether he or she can effectively play one. I wouldn’t agree. A rock star or even a TV star might understand the hassles of being a movie star — the invasions of privacy, the crowded yet isolated life lived in public. But only a fine actor can make us understand it, too. In the surprisingly disarming Notting Hill, Julia Roberts demonstrates yet again that she’s not just a bit of charisma decorated by a warm smile. Roberts plays Anna Scott, the world’s most famous actress; in interviews, Roberts has bent over backwards to distance herself from Anna, who can be much more brittle and cool than Roberts would like us to believe she herself is. Does it make any difference? How much of what Julia Roberts does in interviews is acting? Whatever the true reality, Roberts makes us believe in the reality of Anna the vaguely sad woman who lucked into fame and has had many opportunities to regret it.
One afternoon, while promoting her new blockbuster Helix in London, Anna ducks into a Notting Hill travel bookshop owned by William Thacker (Hugh Grant), a witty and self-deprecating gentleman who rather reminds us of, well, Hugh Grant in his interviews. Perhaps, in these ironic times, this is one of the only remaining routes into a romantic comedy: a premise that winks at the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief. After Anna and William have fallen in love, and the tabloids make much of their tryst, we know full well that both Roberts and Grant have had experience with scandal, even though Grant is playing a virgin in such matters.
Notting Hill is a graceful Hollywood romance that doesn’t quite feel like one, thanks to screenwriter Richard Curtis, who likes to bring an American into caustic, scruffy-working-class Brit territory, as in The Tall Guy and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Curtis also loves to paint a colorful background for his romances, in the form of agreeably rumpled supporting characters. Consider, for example, William’s best friend Max (Tim McInnerny), the world’s worst cook and loving husband to Bella (Gina McKee), a sensible attorney who also happens to be in a wheelchair. Or William’s loopy sister Honey (Emma Chambers) or his menschy shop clerk Martin (James Dreyfus), both of whom are flabbergasted in the presence of Anna. Or especially the scene-stealing Spike (Rhys Ifans), William’s flatmate, who makes David Thewlis in Naked look like a model of refinement.
You get the warming and chilling essence of Notting Hill in the scene where Anna first enters William’s shop. He recognizes her but is too much the gentleman to say so; he tosses off a few witty asides, and we see Anna’s wary attraction to him, and his to her. Then a stubbly customer wanders over to Anna for an autograph, and you see a little light go out in Anna’s eyes as she politely but coolly complies. You see William deflate a bit, too: he’d thought he might actually have a chance at this woman, but the customer reminds them both who she is and punctures the illusion. It’s a lovely little scene, and the rest of Notting Hill gets considerable mileage out of the themes introduced in it. The illusion that Anna is just a regular woman, it turns out, isn’t an illusion after all — even if everything around her is.