March 15, 2019

Notting Hill, the saccharine Richard Curtis film starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, is one of the highest grossing rom-coms of all time. For those of us hurtling towards middle-age, the BAFTA-winning film is something of a classic. Now, to celebrate its 20th birthday, Netflix has this week re-released the film on its platform.

In recent years, art, culture and entertainment has come under increasing scrutiny. Some of it overdue: numerous entertainers have been exposed for historic sex offences, and their work and shows boycotted as a result. Watching re-runs of Top of the Pops would rightly make you shiver. But other critiques have been more tiresome, such as the social media pile-on after Friends was re-released on Netflix. New viewers saw sexist, homophobic and transphobic storylines in the cult Nineties TV show.

What, then, will a woke 2019 audience make of Notting Hill? I felt a twinge of nervousness sitting down to re-watch the Curtis classic two decades on. But on identity politics I needn’t have worried. As it turns out, it was a film ahead of its time.

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Notting Hill, despite being lauded as the archetypal rom-com and thus theoretically a ‘chick flick’, has a storyline that hadn’t been explored in mainstream cinema before. It inverts the standard female-male power dynamic.

Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) is the person with the power in the relationship, with William (Hugh Grant) playing what would have been, up until that point, the more stereotypical female role of having to hang on the man’s every whim. Anna decides when and if the relationship runs or stops; throughout the film she comes in and out of William’s life whenever she pleases. She can get to him, but he can’t get to her.

True, the power structure is somewhat reversed at the very end, with Anna pledging to stay in London to be with William, rather than him having to move across the Atlantic to be with her. But ultimately, she remains the power broker in the relationship. In the penultimate scene the couple are seen at a film premiere, her career clearly still going strong, while William looks shaky at the red-carpet event, holding onto Anna’s arm for dear life. She is the boss from the moment they meet until the final shot.

The idea that it was okay for a man to be with a glamorous woman, even if that meant playing second fiddle, was ahead of its time in 1999 – in fact it still feels pretty bold in 2019.

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Of course, for those just looking for a reason to take to Reddit or Twitter, the turn of the millennium film supplies a handful of ‘politically incorrect’ targets to denounce.

At one point, Grant’s character William is trying to get on with his life after Hollywood actress Anna Scott – played by Julia Roberts – has dumped him. A potential love interest is depicted as a loon because she is a fruitarian. “We believe that fruits and vegetables have feelings, so we think cooking is cruel,” she tells her startled date, before saying that the carrots they are eating have been “murdered”.  In 2019, using someone’s diet as a gag line is a sackable offence, just ask former Waitrose Food magazine editor William Sitwell.

Then there is Rhys Ifans’ wacky Welsh character. You can imagine some people taking offence: ‘Are you saying that all Welsh people are idiots who would confuse mayonnaise for yogurt and then keep eating it even when this error was pointed out to them?’ Making fun of someone based on their nationality wouldn’t happen in 2019. At least, not without prompting a picket line.

And one of the key supporting roles in the film is a woman in a wheelchair, but the part is played by a non-disabled actor. In fact, her disability does not define who she is or what she does in the film – in one scene she tells her husband off for treating her as fragile because she can’t walk – but undoubtedly some will still take umbrage.

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But despite these examples, Notting Hill will probably get a passing identity politics grade overall.

Which is somewhat ironic, because there is one properly jarring element to the film, just not one that is likely to aggravate the woke brigade who tend to focus their attentions on gender, race and sexuality: the lack of working-class characters and the rosy portrayal of ‘real’ England.

Richard Curtis’s films are, of course, known for their portrayal of idyllic London – cute shops, smiling locals and plenty of sunshine ­– but to a 2019 audience, the film’s attempt to present Notting Hill as distinctly different from the fantasy land of celebrity Hollywood sits uncomfortably. Anna’s experience of ‘real’ English life is hanging out in posh neighbourhoods, in big houses, meeting very nice middle-class people with comfy lifestyles, and lounging around in William’s bookshop.

At the end, when William rebuffs Anna (spoiler: it all works out eventually), he attempts to illustrate the gulf between them by saying: “I live in Notting Hill; you live in Beverly Hills”. I wanted to shout at the screen: ‘William, mate: those two places aren’t that far apart!’

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In 2019, the idea that Notting Hill and Beverly Hills are somehow culturally in conflict with one another is laughable. If remade for our era, Notting Hill would need to juxtapose a much sharper version of ‘reality’ against the celebrity sham. I’d like to see a Boston-dwelling, Harvard intellectual who attends Davos every year travel to Boston, Lincolnshire for a conference. Feeling peckish, she nips into a local chippy and finds the man behind the counter strangely enchanting. The clash between those two universes would feel a lot more poignant in 2019.

Notting Hill may, then, be #MeToo safe, but it portrays a world without a working-class, a world in which two people from two sides of an echo chamber pretend they are cultural opposites. Even in 1999, the England Richard Curtis portrayed felt sugary and annoying; in 2019, it borders on the offensive. If anything ruins the birthday party, it will be this.

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