'Pretty Woman' marked the ascent of Julia Roberts to the top of the Hollywood A-list, and she's been "America's sweetheart" ever since. A genuine superstar (an important distinction in a tabloid culture that often confuses fame with infamy), Roberts has never really stepped wrong in terms of career choices -- at least when it comes to her raison d'etre, the romantic comedy. Though I'm personally not a huge fan of 'Pretty Woman,' the rest of the world ate it up, and it's hard to argue that her $20 million dollar smile hasn't been the primary reason that films like 'My Best Friend's Wedding,' 'Stepmom,' 'Something to Talk About' and 'Runaway Bride' have become bona fide smash hits.
Although 1999's 'Notting Hill' is certainly one of the actress' biggest films in terms of pure box office, it's debatable whether or not the film itself remains a truly revered entry in the Roberts canon. To be sure, it's an enjoyable and even sometimes hilarious tale of mismatched lovers, yet even only eight years after its original theatrical release, the film itself seems to have all but faded from memory.
The plot is absolutely prototypical of a romantic comedy -- the tale of two wounded lovers who don't realize they were made for each other. Roberts stars as worldwide movie superstar Anna Scott, while Hugh Grant plays "ordinary guy" William Thacker, a foppish London book store owner who just can't seem to get a date. The two will meet after Anna stumbles into his store during a press tour for her latest movie, and will then spend the rest of the movie trying to figure out why they aren't getting together.
The obstacles the script throws in the path of Anna and William are occasionally unique for a romantic comedy, if far from unpredictable. Anna will worry that William won't be able to handle the intense scrutiny someone of her level of fame attracts. William will worry that a beautiful, successful and rich superstar like Anna could never love an average schmoo like him. Meanwhile, William's circle of close friends -- particularly his goofball flat mate Spike (Rhys Ifans) and married pals Bernie (Hugh Bonneville) and Bella (Gina McKee) -- try to motivate him to overcome his insecurity, while Anna will have to maintain a double life in order to conceal her interest in William from the tabloids, further undermining his confidence.
Revisiting the film again on HD DVD, I couldn't help but think that one barrier that may prevent the audience from fully engaging in 'Notting Hill' is the basic scenario of the Roberts character. In a clear case of the filmmakers hoping that the old "art imitating life" thing would yield poignant results, we are asked to feel sorry for Anna/Julia, even though she's beautiful, rich and famous. Poor thing -- all that money and fame, and still she must suffer the "indignity" of being single.
And ironically, while the film's two A-list lead actors would seem to be the its primary draw, it is arguably its supporting ensemble that that ultimately elevates 'Notting Hill' above the usual chick flick pack. As William turns more and more to his friends for advice on how to cope with his escalating romantic woes, they end up delivering the film's most authentic and quirky performances. By comparison, William and Anna are so constrained by the rote requirements of the genre that they never feel truly three-dimensional. They still emerge as likable, just not memorable -- it's only the magnetism and on-screen chemistry of Roberts and Grant that turns them into anything more than cardboard cut-outs.
To be sure, 'Notting Hill' remains a pleasant diversion. It's hard not to enjoy its pure breezy charm, witty dialogue, and sharp direction by Roger Mitchell. It's also a very good-looking movie, and if nothing else, will make you want to pack up immediately and move to England. Granted, there isn't a single moment in 'Notting Hill' that isn't entirely predictable, but when it comes to romantic comedies, I suppose we don't care if we already know the ending. We just want to see two very attractive people meet, fall in love, stammer over each other, and eventually ride off into the sunset together. On that level, 'Notting Hill' is a delectable cinematic pastry puff.
'Notting Hill' first hit standard-def DVD way back in 1999, and was then re-issued two years later as an "Ultimate Edition," featuring the same transfer, only with some additional new extras. In both cases, the picture quality was quite strong, and seeing as this high-def transfer doesn't look substantially different enough to suggest a major remaster effort, I suspect that this HD DVD is minted from the same old source. Still, regardless of its age, this remains a very good-looking presentation.
Hitting HD DVD in 2.35:1 widescreen and 1080p/VC-1 video, 'Notting Hill' is nicely photographed and quite classy in its look. The source has a strong sense of depth, with rich blacks and strong contrast that never looks overdone, and the image remains largely natural and realistic. Colors are vivid -- especially the rich fleshtones -- although they're perhaps a tad less saturated than today's more heavily post-processed transfers. I was also impressed by the lack of any compression problems, with no excessive noise or pixelation.
There are, however, a couple of stumbling blocks that prevent this from being a completely winning high-def presentation. First off, the transfer looks a bit soft for most of its runtime, which appears to be due to the film's frequent use of filtering (a stylistic choice). On the bright side, I was heartened to see that the source has not been enhanced to hell to compensate the film's decreased sharpness, leaving the image delightfully free of jaggies and halos. The other problem is shadow delineation -- black crush was a bit sharp for my taste, with the very finest of details seeming to be lost a bit in the murk.
Still, even if its elements are a bit dated, overall 'Notting Hill' looks surprisingly good in its high-def debut.
Although this HD DVD edition of 'Notting Hill' includes Universal's usual Dolby Digital-Plus (at 384kbps) plus a surprise Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track (at 48kHz/16-bit/2.1Mbps), unfortunately the film's sound design is a bit too straightforward to see much benefit from the use of a high-resolution audio format.
Typical of most romantic comedies, 'Notting Hill' is front-heavy. Dialogue and the very pleasant score by Trevor Jones are the track's primary attributes, with both nicely presented. I liked the warm quality to the mid-range, which gives a sweet edge to the music. Bass is standard-issue, though given the nature of the material this is not a major problem. Surround use is just about absent, and is only reserved for score bleed. I don't think I noticed the rears being engaged at all -- even for slight ambiance (which is a shame, as it would have improved the sense of realism to the film's wonderful London locations). At least stereo separation is airy and expansive, with dialogue firmly rooted in the center and always intelligible. There are also no volume inequities, with each element of the mix nicely balanced.
'Notting Hill' on HD DVD combines all of the extras seen on both the original 1999 "Collector's Edition" DVD and the subsequent "Ultimate Edition" from 2001, and it's a fairly hefty combined package.
The featurettes are threefold, but the weakest part of the set. "Spotlight on Location" (15 minutes) is Universal's typical EPK, but even more banal than usual. Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Hugh Bonneville and director Roger Mitchell do the usual round of back-patting, telling us how wonderful the story is, and how wonderful the cast and crew are. In-between, we're treated to dull behind-the-scenes footage and plenty of recap by way of movie clips. How... wonderful.
"Seasonal Walk On Portobello Road" (6 minutes) is actually a technical vignette. There is a cool shot in the movie where the Hugh Grant character walks down a road, and around him the seasons change, signaling his enduring lack of a love life. It's a nice shot, and here we get to see how it was done via the magic of computer-generated imagery.
Finally, "Hugh Grant's Movie Tips" (7 minutes) is the only truly inspired of the bunch. A sort of video diary, Grant instructs us on how we should act on a movie set, including when and where to show up, how to dress and other important tips. He even gets a charming visit from his real-life parents. Fun, and in its own wry way, not slight.
There is also a 10-minute long montage of Deleted Scenes, dubbed "The Scenes That Got Away." Typical of most excised footage, there really is a reason it got away -- it's pretty extraneous to the plot. Included is a narrative u-turn where Grant's buddies try to fix him up with a new girl, as well as more with the Spike character. There are a couple of good moments here and there, but nothing that didn't deserve to hit the cutting room floor.
Also included are two features that would have been considered "interactive" in the ole' DVD days. "The Travel Book" is an extended map of the film's real-life locations; click on any of the icons, and up comes information on the area, as well as what to do when you get there. "Music Highlights" simply provides direct scene access to the nine chapters which feature songs from the soundtrack.
By far the best extra is the screen-specific audio commentary with director Roger Mitchell, writer Richard Curtis and producer Duncan Kenworthy. A good bit of detail is provided on filming in the various locations, the challenges in dealing with actors that have such recognizable personas, and Curtis' forthright comments on turning in a formula romance that isn't too formulaic. A nicely-balanced track, there is something here for just about everyone.
Wrapping things up are two music videos -- one for Elvis Costello's "Say," and one for Shania Twain's "You've Got a Way." Plus, there are both domestic and international theatrical trailers.
(Note that all of the video-based material listed above is presented in middling 480p/i/MPEG-2 video only.)
'Notting Hill' is an enjoyable, often charming romantic comedy. Although I had trouble swallowing Julia Roberts' somewhat self-conscious, often whiny character, the film has a nice sense of location and a standout supporting cast.
As an HD DVD release, this one's fairly strong for a catalog title, and should certainly satisfy fans of the film. Even though the elements don't seem to have been remastered anytime recently, the video and audio are just fine, while the supplemental package provides a comprehensive collection of extras from both previous DVD releases.