If you examine film release schedules, you may notice a fairly substantial gap that surrounds May 19, 1999. On that date, a little flick called The Phantom Menace - or Star Wars: Episode I - hit screens, and this was the behemoth from which all competition ran.
One flick had the audacity to go into wide release on May 21. The Love Letter was offered as a sacrifice to the counter-programming gods. The theory behind its appearance at this time reasoned that a) all those people who couldn’t get in to sold-out shows of TPM needed something to see, and b) since TPM mainly appealed to males, a serious chick-flick like TLL might attract a significant crowd who wanted something different.
This reasoning makes sense on the surface, but it fails to account for the cultural phenomenon that was TPM. Especially during its first week, that film’s appeal transcended virtually all demographical boundaries; it became a “must-see” experience for virtually all ages, genders, races, and whatnots. TLL couldn’t break through in the face of this onslaught.
As it happened, the idea behind this counter-programming was valid; it was the timing that was faulty. This was proven a week later, when Notting Hill hit screens. The logic made sense. By May 28, the masses had already experienced TPM, and many would be ready to check out something different. Sure, the Star Wars faithful and the kids would still be most interested in TPM, but they weren’t the target audience for NH. By that point in time, those who would be interested in a romantic comedy would be more open to the possibility.
Actually, it’s likely that NH would have outperformed TLL even if the release schedules had been reversed. The combination of Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant will virtually always eclipse an ensemble in which the biggest names were those of Kate Capshaw, Tom Selleck and Ellen Degeneres, so it seems probable that TLL would have been a bit of a dud nonetheless; it’s possible that the movie was given such a terrible release date just to let the studio have an easy excuse for its failure.
The same reasoning wouldn’t have worked as well for NH; it’s been a few years since Julia Roberts experienced a true flop, so Universal clearly wanted to maintain her success with this flick. That she did, and even for a person like myself who doesn’t much care for chick-flicks, I have to admit that Notting Hill was a reasonably effective and entertaining piece.
At the start of the film, we meet Will Thacker (Grant), the fairly quiet proprietor of a somewhat unsuccessful London travel bookstore located in the Notting Hill district. That’s also where Will lives and where virtually all of his family and friends reside. He leads a rather insulated life, but all that starts to change one day when a new customer enters the shop. She’s Anna Scott (Roberts), an insanely famous movie star. The two briefly chat about a book that she purchases, and life seems to move on, or at least it would if life didn’t include two attractive movie stars who need to feed a plot.
Yes, it’s time for the true “meet cute” moment, the part of the flick in which our romantic leads come together in star-crossed fashion. Will goes out for beverages, and as he returns, he accidentally spills orange juice all over Anna. Since his abode is so close, she stops in there to clean up, and a few sparks exchange. She seems to move on, but inevitably additional contact is made when she calls him a few days later. After that, the romance truly ensues, and the inevitable complications also appear on the road to the traditional happy ending.
Not a moment of Notting Hill offers anything surprising or fresh, but to be frank, that didn’t really bother me. Movies can be predictable and retread older material but still succeed as long as they do so in a charming, entertaining manner, and that’s why Notting Hill works. Actually, I wouldn’t call the film a rousing success, for it tends to drag after a while. The first half of the flick seemed to be much more effective than the second, partially because it turned into something of a soap opera during that span. The film’s opening portions were lighter and frothier, and they offered a more winning and compelling experience.
Nonetheless, the movie remained fairly compelling through most of its time. I must acknowledge that I really disliked the ending. I’ll leave the film’s conclusion undiscussed, but suffice it to say that I thought it finished in a far-too-concrete manner; we have absolutely no question how the characters’ lives will proceed. While I’m happy that this at least avoided the “set-up for a sequel” finales that mar many movies, I still didn’t like the fact that we weren’t allowed to imagine for ourselves how things might go.
In any case, most of Notting Hill worked well, largely due to the performers. Grant doesn’t seem to be the world’s most versatile performer, as he always appears to play a variation on the same stammering, mussy character. Still, he does this well, and his natural charm came across nicely throughout the film. He made Will into a reasonably endearing and likeable person who helped propel the movie through its various machinations. He even created humor where none should have existed; some jokes were terribly obvious, but Grant’s delivery helped make them work.
As for Roberts, she was a minor disappointment. I say “minor” because I’m not all that wild about her to start, so she can’t let me down too much. Nonetheless, she seemed to be somewhat bland and anonymous as Anna. Little of her usual spark and friskiness came through in the part, and she appeared vaguely unconvincing, even though she essentially played herself. Frankly, the movie does a poor job of letting us know why Will becomes so smitten with Anna other than he’s supposed to do so; after all, she’s the world’s biggest actress, so of course he’d fall for her! However, Roberts didn’t display a great deal of charm or panache in the role, and she occasionally seemed awfully bitchy for the part.
Since this was really Grant’s movie, these concerns weren’t overwhelming, however, and the supporting cast helped add depth to the proceedings. While all were solid, best of the bunch had to be Rhys Ifans as Will’s housemate Spike. He plays the part with a raw and grimy wit that make Spike fun and endearing even though he’s mainly an irresponsible loser. Still, he’s a fun loser, and Ifans makes the most of his limited screen time.
Ultimately, Notting Hill is a minor pleasure, but I still thought it was a reasonably enjoyable experience. It lacks great chemistry between its romantic leads, but the supporting cast compensate for this problem. In the end, I thought Notting Hill offered a fairly witty and entertaining romantic comedy; it does nothing to reinvent the genre, but it functions as a good example of the field.
Notting Hill appears in both an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and in a fullscreen version on these single-sided, dual-layered DVDs; DVD One offers the 2.35:1 presentation, while DVD Two includes the fullscreen film. Note that this is the first time the latter has appeared on DVD. The widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the letterboxed picture was assessed for this review. Although the picture remained watchable at all times, it seemed to be surprisingly drab for such a recent movie.
Sharpness appeared reasonably crisp and detailed. During some wide shots, the image became slightly soft, but these instances were infrequent and mild. As a whole, the film looked acceptably distinct and well-defined. However, some shimmering cropped up at times, and a bit of minor edge enhancement accompanied a few shots. Print flaws presented modest concerns, thought they seemed somewhat heavy for a new film. Throughout the flick, occasional examples of grit and speckles occurred; these never became terribly intrusive, but they appeared to be a little more prominent than I expected.
Colors generally fell within the realm of acceptable accuracy. NH used a very subdued, naturalistic palette, and it rarely offered many bright, vivid tones. As such, the hues occasionally appeared to be somewhat drab, but I felt that they mainly remained clear and reasonably colorful. Black levels seemed to be a little bland as well, but they usually came across as fairly deep and dark, and shadow detail was appropriately heavy but not excessively thick. Ultimately, Notting Hill offered a decent but rather unexceptional picture.
Also disappointing were the film’s soundtracks. As with all of Universal’s Ultimate Editions, Notting Hill offered both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 options. Even more so than usual, I experienced virtually no difference between the two mixes. As I’ll soon discuss, NH offered a very limited sonic experience, and both formats were more than able to aptly reproduced the material.
At least they would be qualified to do so if the film didn’t provide such a drab soundtrack. Although it offered a limited array of audio, I didn’t have many complaints about the soundfield simply because of the movie’s genre. Romantic comedies rarely feature exciting mixes, and NH was even more subdued than most. Really, for much of the flick, you’ll believe that the soundfield was monaural. NH is a very dialogue-driven film, so the majority of the audio emanated from the center speaker.
The film’s score and songs occasionally broadened the imagery to a degree, and these provided acceptable stereo separation. The surround speakers also supported the music to a modest degree, but I won’t fault you if you think your rear channels didn’t function during the movie. Effects usage was similarly limited, as most of these elements were restricted to general - and very light - ambience. Some mild hubbub cropped up from the sides, and the rears occasionally kicked in with a little activity; for example, when the paparazzi attacked Will’s residence, the surround environment actually seemed to be fairly involving. However, that was a rare event during NH, as the soundfield usually stayed very subdued and centralized.
That limited capacity wasn’t the reason I gave Notting Hill’s soundtrack a relatively-low “C”; I expected a passive soundtrack, and had the audio quality been up to snuff, I would have felt comfortable with at least a “B”. However, the sound didn’t seem as solid as I expected, mainly due to some vocal concerns. Dialogue always remained intelligible, but the lines displayed a variety of modest problems. For the most part, speech sounded thin and reedy, and much of the dialogue showed distinctly edgy qualities. This affected both the production audio recorded on the set and lines that were looped at a later time; for instance, Grant’s occasional narration sounded thick and muddy. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a dialogue-intensive film to provide natural and distinct speech, but unfortunately, NH rarely lived up to that task.
Music showed a few concerns as well, but it usually fared better. At the start of the film, Elvis Costello’s rendition of “She” seemed to be awfully thick and muddy; oddly, when we hear a reprise of the tune at the movie’s conclusion, the tune came across as substantially clearer and more crisp. As a whole, both the score and songs appeared to be acceptably bright and robust. I didn’t think these aspects ever became tremendously vivid, but they were usually acceptably clear and rich. Effects offered the least significant part of NH, but they sounded reasonably clean and accurate. There was little required of them, but these elements appeared to be appropriately realistic and they lacked signs of distortion. Ultimately, NH offered a moderately acceptable listening experience, but I thought that some audio quality concerns made it a much weaker experience than I expected from such a recent film.
This new Ultimate Edition of Notting Hill replaces the original single-disc release that came out back in December 1999. As with most of the UEs, the old version had quite a few extras. Throughout my discussion of the supplements, I’ll indicate the features that are new to the UE with an asterisk. If you don’t see an asterisk, you can assume that the material also appeared on the original release.
Most UEs offer the majority of their extras on DVD One, and that also was the case for Notting Hill. First up we get an audio commentary from director Roger Michell, producer Duncan Kenworthy, and writer Richard Curtis. All three were recorded together for this running, scene-specific track. As a whole, this was a decent piece, but it didn’t bring a lot to the table.
For the most part, the participants offered a rather dry look at the film. They mainly focused on issues that revolved around locations and sets plus changes that were made from script to screen, and other alterations that affected the movie. They provided a reasonable amount of information, I suppose, and they did so in a fairly engaging manner, though this wasn’t one of the more involving commentaries. Ultimately, it was a relatively positive track that I simply felt was a little drab at times.
The commentary also provides one of the coolest and most thoughtful bits I’ve seen on a recent DVD. Virtually everything in this package includes subtitles, and that goes for the commentary as well. I suppose there may have been some subtitled commentaries in the past (not counting text commentaries such as the ones found on Die Hard, Thirteen Days and The Abyss) but this was the first time I witnessed one. Universal deserve praise for this movie, and I hope it’ll become more popular.
Next we find one of Universal’s ubiquitous *Spotlight On Location featurettes. Most of these are largely promotional exercises, and this one didn’t stray far from that formula. The 14-minute and 40-second program gives us a general examination of NH, with a decided emphasis on the positive; there’s lots of happy talk to be heard during this show. However, it does include enough interesting notes about the film to merit a look, as it covers some production points and general topics.
In addition, NH offers a second featurette. Entitled *Seasonal Walk On Portobello Road, this three-minute and 30-second piece mainly focuses on one of the film’s more interesting segments, a stroll during which we go through all of the seasons. Obviously, the brevity of the piece means that it doesn’t provide terrific depth, but it was still a nice look at a distinctive scene.
Deleted Scenes provides six different unused pieces. Each of these lasts between 90 seconds and three minutes for a total of 12 minutes, 20 seconds worth of footage. To my modest surprise, much of this material was quite good. Most of the snippets provided truly deleted scenes, with only one extension of an existing piece. I rather enjoyed the part in which Will tells his parents about Anna, and although the alternate ending wasn’t great, I preferred it to the one they used. Ultimately, this was a solid little collection of excised footage.
Music Highlights lets you skip straight to any of nine songs featured in the film (including the reprise of “She”), while “Recommendations” provides mentions of other Universal titles plus a *trailer for Erin Brockovich. “Travel Book” offers a brief look at Notting Hill for anyone who may like to visit there.
Production Notes add some useful and interesting background information on the film through their text. In the “Cast and Crew” area, we find reasonably solid biographies for eight of the actors plus director Michell, producer Kenworthy, and writer Curtis. Note that although these cover the same personnel found on the original NH DVD, the listings have been updated to cover the last two years. The listing for Roberts also includes another link to the Erin Brockovich trailer.
With that, we complete DVD One. As we move to the second platter, we encounter a mix of additional materials. Hugh Grant’s Movie Tips gives us four minutes and 15 seconds of shtick from the actor. He provides somewhat tongue in cheek discussions of the movie business, and he clowns with crewmembers. It’s all harmless and mildly entertaining, but someone needs to tell him how to spell “feta”.
Two music videos appear on DVD Two. For *She, Elvis Costello mainly lip-synchs along with the tune as shots from the film run; he also occasionally pretends to watch and enjoy the flick. It’s a dull clip, but Elvis still rules, so I won’t slam it too hard. In *You’ve Got a Way, Shania Twain also lip-synchs along with the number as she traipses through a field of flowers; this is intercut with snippets of NH. It’s also a dull clip, but Shania’s still hot, so I won’t slam it too hard.
*Photograph Montage adds four minutes and 45 seconds of production stills from the film; these are accompanied by music from the soundtrack. These might be of interest to someone, but I thought they were quite dull.
We get two trailers. One is the US version, while the other is the international cut. Note that both include some deleted footage - there’s a little of the scene with Will’s parents - and the American one also dubs a line in which Anna refers to the Rita Hayworth film Gilda; I guess them marketing folks thought we wouldn’t get it.
Disc Two duplicates some of the materials found on the first platter. There you’ll find reprises of the audio commentary, “Music Highlights”, “Recommendations”, “Travel Book”, “Cast and Filmmakers”, “Travel Book”, and “Production Notes”. As such, that leaves the “Spotlight On Location” and “Seasonal Walk On Portobello Road” featurettes and the “Deleted Scenes” as the only exclusives on DVD One, while the two music videos, “Hugh Grant’s Movie Tips”, the two trailers, and the “Photograph Montage” appeared solely on DVD Two.
In the DVD-ROM area, you’ll find a mix of additional pieces. Note that all of these appear on both discs of this Ultimate Edition. Most of these are text pieces that recreate the movie’s Website. “Story” covers the film’s plot and also offers some brief credits, while “Cast” provides biographies of seven actors. Unusually, this omits the credit for Hugh Bonneville’s Bernie found on the main disc; most of these sections feature additional entries rather than fewer. “Filmmakers” gives us entries for the same three men listed on the regular DVD as well as seven other members of the crew. “Behind the Scenes” offers three screens of decent production notes.
In addition to links to the websites for Universal Studios, Universal Theme Parks, Universal Home Video and Universal Pictures, the DVD-ROM area offers one other extra. This is the semi-standard *“Script to Screen” feature. This shows the film in a small box on the left side of the screen, while the original script appears on the right. It’s fun to compare the differences; these didn’t seem to be major, but some existed.
Almost all of the extras from the original DVD of Notting Hill appear on the UE, but it did lose two trailers. The old one tossed in ads for then-current theatrical releases The Bone Collector and The Story Of Us. Since these are now old news, they no longer can be found on this DVD.
As a film, Notting Hill provided a reasonably enjoyable experience. As one who doesn’t usually like chick flicks, this was a modest surprise, but the film was moderately witty and entertaining even to a manly man like myself; it didn’t do anything special within the genre, but it worked acceptably well. The DVD itself also was erratic but generally positive. The picture displayed some concerns, and the sound showed quality problems that were especially disappointing. However, the extras were fairly entertaining, though most were largely insubstantial.
In regard to my recommendations, I have to examine Notting Hill from two sides. First, for anyone who doesn’t already own the 1999 DVD release of the film, this new package should be a desirable set. If you’ve not checked out the movie, it merits a rental, and big fans of the actors may want to hazard a purchase sight unseen. Those who already know that they like NH will feel more secure with a purchase.
As for those who own the old DVD, the choice is much less clear. The new material found on the UE doesn’t seem to add much to the package. The DTS audio appeared to be identical to the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix found on the original disc (and here as well), and I don’t know how many people will be interested in the fullscreen version of the film. The UE’s new extras are sparse; they weren’t bad pieces, but on their own, I wouldn’t think they’d merit a repurchase of the movie. New fans should be happy with the Ultimate Edition of Notting Hill, but current owners of the original DVD are probably best off sticking with it.