Moral Movie Reviews Moral Movie Reviews

Anna Scott's Moral Journey in Notting Hill

She is an American movie star, glamorous and famous.  He is the proprietor of a hobbling travel book shop in a suburb of London.  In 1999’s Notting Hill they have an improbable on-again, off-again romance which ends, predictably, with the boy getting the girl, although not without the requisite complications along the way.  It’s the classic story of the commoner and the princess, although underlying this romantic fairy tale is a character’s moral journey that makes Notting Hill more interesting than the standard, formulaic romantic comedy.

The moral center of this movie is William Thacker (played by Hugh Grant).  He is the everyman many viewers will identify with:  a nice middle-class guy, well intentioned, hardworking but only marginally successful, accepting of the foibles and eccentricities of his friends, divorced and not happily so, looking for love with the right woman.  He is self-effacing, able to laugh at himself and bear his friends’ teasing with good humor.  He shares a small flat with a free-spirited Welshman, Spike (Rhys Ifans), the roommate from hell, whom Thacker tolerates with a degree of benevolence most of us would be incapable of.  And he is able to suffer disappointment and heartbreak with enviable grace.  Honest, guileless, and charming, he reflects the kinds of moral virtues people admire.

Thacker’s common humanity is reflected in his circle of friends.  Max (Tim McInnerny), his best friend, is an affable, upstanding fellow, albeit the world’s worst cook.  Max is married to Bella (Gina McKee), a former girlfriend of Will’s, who slipped and broke her back and is now confined to a wheelchair.  She’s given up smoking and laments that she and Max cannot have children.  Honey (Emma Chambers), Will’s sister, is unsuccessful with men and works in London’s worst record store.   She says of herself that she has feathers instead of hair and has funny, goggly eyes.  She thinks no one will marry her because her “boosies” have started shrinking.  Bernie (Hugh Bonneville) is a stockbroker who hasn’t had a girlfriend since puberty.  He works in the city in a job he doesn’t understand, and everyone keeps getting promoted above him.  Each of these people is damaged or imperfect in some way—and all accept who they are.  There are no pretensions, no rivalries, no existential angst.  These are common people who love one another despite—or perhaps because of—their imperfections.  Bonded by lasting friendship, they are affectionate in their acceptance of each other’s humanity.

Into their world comes the beautiful Anna Scott (Julia Roberts), a virtual goddess.  The love affair between Anna and Will unfolds in three acts, each act capturing one of Thacker’s encounters with her. 

Act I

In Act I, Anna Scott walks into Will’s Travel Book Company.  He recognizes her, despite her beret and sunglasses, but keeps his composure.  She is charmed by his disarming good nature.  Later, he literally runs into her on the street and spills orange juice on both of them.  They go to his flat, where she cleans up.   Before departing, she surprises Will by giving him a long, sensuous kiss.  She asks him not to tell his flat mate, Spike, and he replies, “I may tell myself sometimes, but don’t worry, I won’t believe it.”

From there we witness the familiar patterns of a budding infatuation.  She calls him, but Spike neglects to give him the message.  When they finally connect, she invites him to The Ritz, where she’s staying.  He thinks it’s a date, but when he arrives at her room he discovers that members of the press are interviewing Anna and other cast members in her new film.  He pretends to be a reporter from Horse and Hound magazine and, alone with her for just a moment, asks to see her that night.  She can’t, she says, but then later arranges to be free.  That night, Max and Bella are having a small dinner to celebrate Honey’s birthday, and Anna agrees to be Will’s date.  This party is an entertaining moment in Notting Hill—the commoners are initially agog at the princess; she, uncomfortable with the fawning attention but growing at ease with their teasing of each other and the warmth of their company.  Afterwards, Anna and Will take and walk and climb over a fence into a private garden, where they share a romantic moment. 

The next day they have a typical date (a movie and dinner), albeit with comic moments.  Afterwards, he walks her back to The Ritz.  As they near the hotel, she says, “I don’t know what I’m doing with you,” but she invites him up to her room.  He accepts, and she asks for five minutes to get ready.  But when he goes to her room, she anxiously tells him to leave and says that her boyfriend from America has arrived unexpectedly.  The boyfriend (a Hollywood actor played by Alec Baldwin) then walks into the room and mistakes Will for a waiter.  He places a room service order and asks Will to take out the trash.  Humiliated, Will picks up dirty dishes and goes to the door.  Anna says, “I don’t know what to say.  I’m so sorry.” 

Will leaves, despondent, and takes a bus back to Notting Hill.  He learns, as we do, that beneath her beautiful veneer, Anna Scott has been dishonest.  When she kissed him, when she went with him to Honey’s party, when they shared those moments of growing intimacy in the park, and when she invited him up to her room—she was already in a committed relationship.  Naively, although she is a famous movie star, he did not suspect it, could not imagine it given how inviting and affectionate she was toward him, but the boyfriend had been part of her life all along.  We are as shocked as he is when the boyfriend walks into the room, and Anna tells him that his unexpected arrival is a “good surprise.”  It doesn’t take much empathy to feel the sting of Will’s humiliation as he is treated like a servant and later steps onto that lonely bus to the tune of Al Green’s “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?”

It could be that Anna was unhappy in her relationship with the Hollywood boyfriend.  Maybe she was exploring a relationship with a normal guy, but that doesn’t excuse her deceit or mitigate Will’s pain.  At this point in the story, Anna’s dishonesty is the moral counterpoint to Will’s common decency.

Act II

Months pass.  Max and Bella try to fix Will up with a number of single women, but none are right for him.  Then Anna is back in London, but he doesn’t know it.  She hasn’t called him, hasn’t let him know she was returning, has apparently made no plans to see him.  However, when some embarrassing nude photos of her appear in the tabloids, photos she did as a young, struggling actress, her hotel is hounded by the press.  Having nowhere else to go, she flees to Will’s flat, and he gives her refuge.  During the day they spend together, he listens patiently as she agonizes over the photos.  Later, as the immediate crisis ebbs, they talk and laugh, and he helps her rehearse her lines for her next movie.  Nothing appears to be an obstacle to their growing intimacy.

That night, as he is showing her to his bedroom (he will sleep on the sofa bed downstairs), she says, “Today’s been a good day, which under the circumstances is unexpected.”  Later, Will lies awake on the sofa, unable to sleep, tormented by his desire for her, the unexpected rush of feelings she’s brought back into his life, and confusion over her feelings for him.  Then, after Will has some comic moments with Spike, Anna tiptoes downstairs, wearing only one of Will’s shirts.  As they tenderly kiss, he eases the shirt off her shoulders.  We next see them in his bed, her arm across his chest, his eyes open in blissful post-coital reflection.  When both awake in the morning, she asks if she can stay a bit longer.  He says, “Stay forever,” and she replies, “Okay.”

Their euphoric interlude abruptly ends, however, when the doorbell rings.  Will answers it wearing a tee-shirt and boxer shorts.  Outside is a throng of reporters and photographers.  Stunned, he is unable to close the door before the press snaps numerous shots of him.  Then Anna comes to the door, and the paparazzi get their prize photos of her dressed in Will’s shirt.  Still reeling from the release of those tabloid photos, Anna goes ballistic.  “They got a picture of you dressed like that?” she says.  Here’s how the situation devolves from this point:

     Anatomy of a Meltdown

She accuses Spike of having informed the press in order to make a buck or two.  He denies it.  Her anger mounting, she says, sarcastically, then the entire British press must have awakened this morning knowing where Anna Scott is.  Nearly screaming, she adds, “And then you go out in your goddamn underwear!”

He apologizes, but she’s in no mood to listen.  Packing her things, she says she came to him to get out of this mess, and how she’s back in it even more.  “For God’s sake,” she says, “I have a boyfriend!”  “You do?” he says.  “As far as they’re concerned, I do.”

He appeals to her to stay calm, and she yells, “You stay calm!”  Then she skewers him with a blatantly unfair twisting of the knife:  “This is a perfect situation for you, isn’t it?  Minimum input and maximum publicity.  Everywhere you go, she says, people will say, well done, you slept with that actress.  We saw the pictures.”

He tells her that her accusation is spectacularly unfair, and at some level she may know this, but she is too wound up to hear him.  Maybe this will help your business, she suggests.  Maybe someone will buy a boring book about Egypt from that guy who’s screwing Anna Scott.

He begs her to stop as she’s running down the stairs.  This is crazy behavior, he says.  Can’t we just laugh about all this?  In the huge sweep of things, this doesn’t matter.  All he’s asking for, he says, is a normal amount of perspective.

You’re right, she says, but you’ve dealt with this garbage for ten minutes.  I’ve had it for ten years.  “Our perspectives are different!”

He argues that today’s newspapers will soon be lining wastepaper bins.  She counters with, “You really don’t get it.  Newspaper stories are filed.  Every time someone writes a story about me, they’ll dig up this story.  Newspapers last forever.  I’ll regret this forever.”

“I will feel the opposite,” he says, sadly, “and will always be glad that you came to stay.”

She knows she’s hurt him but has no answer for that—and she leaves.  What follows is a brilliant time-lapse sequence (done to Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine”) in which Will walks through the street markets in Notting Hill.  As he passes vendors, the weather changes through the seasons—from summer sunshine to rain and falling leaves, to snow and wind, and then to the sun and flowers of spring again.  During this time lapse we see Honey early in the sequence with a boyfriend (and later slapping at him) and a pregnant woman at the start of the sequence who is later carrying her baby as she shops. During this long year, Will has thought about Anna but hasn’t heard from her.  She doesn’t apologize for her behavior or apparently care about how he must feel. 

Act II is the apex of Anna’s bad behavior, and it is jarring, juxtaposing as it does the sweet intimacy she is capable of when she loses the star mantle and allows herself the ease of being with a normal guy and the unreasonable harpy she becomes when the consequences of fame force her to wear her celebrity like battle armor.  She’s right about the need to protect herself from the maddening swarm of reporters who make money by turning her life into entertainment.  But the way she treats Will is still inexcusable.  Common decency says that when we mistreat someone, we should feel contrite, acknowledge what we’ve done, and ask for their forgiveness.  We are expected to be considerate and make amends, and Anna does none of this.  She behaves like a self-centered princess who doesn’t give a damn about anyone but herself.  From a moral perspective, this is her lowest point in the film.


As Act III begins, Will tells his friends that he’s decided to be happy, that he’s over the actress.  Then he learns from Max that Anna has returned to London (again, without letting him know).  She is doing a Henry James movie (which he had suggested), and they are in their last day of shooting.  Will goes to the set, and Anna, who looks surprised (and not very happy) to see him, treats him diffidently but says she wants to talk to him later.  He’s given a pair of earphones, however, and overhears her telling another actor that Will is nobody, just some guy from her past and she’s embarrassed that he’s turned up.  Hurt yet again by her dismissal of him, Will departs.  The next day, Anna comes to his bookshop to apologize, and this scene represents both Ann’s transformation and the culminating point in her moral journey.

She is dressed conservatively and looks contrite.  He observes that since they last saw each other she’s been covered in awards and glory.  She says, “No, it’s all nonsense, believe me.  I had no idea how much nonsense it was, but nonsense it all is.”  Then she tells him that when it came to it she didn’t know how to call him, having behaved badly twice.  He asks how long she will be in London, and she says she plans to leave tonight.  But if she stayed longer, she wonders, could she see him a little, or a lot?  Could he like her again?

Will agonizes over her question for a moment and then reaches a difficult decision:  “I’m a fairly level-headed bloke,” he says, “not often in and out of love.  Can I just say no to your kind request?  With you I’m in real danger.  It seems like a perfect situation, apart from that foul temper of yours.  But my relatively inexperienced heart would I fear not recover if I was once again cast aside, as I would absolutely expect to be.” 

Then comes one of Anna’s most important admissions in the film:  “The fame thing isn’t really real, you know.  I’m also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.”

Anna’s apology for her behavior and acknowledgement that fame and glory are “nonsense” and “unreal” bring her to Will’s level of common decency.  We would not believe this transformation if we hadn’t seen the seeds of it planted earlier in the film.  We see her struggle with her fame.  We see the pleasure she experiences at Honey’s birthday party and the longing she experiences for a lasting love.  When they were strolling in that private garden earlier in the film, Anna said, “There really are people who spend their whole lives together.”

When they were in Will’s flat during Act II, Anna admitted, “Anytime I’ve tried to keep anything normal with a normal person it’s just been a disaster.” 

Finding a way not to make a normal relationship a disaster is the key to her transformation.  In the movie’s denouement, Will realizes he’s made a mistake and he and his friends find Anna at a press conference she’s giving before she departs for America.  Will asks her to reconsider, and she does, telling reporters that she plans to stay in Britain indefinitely.  During the film’s closing number (Elvis Costello’s “She”) we see Anna and Will at their wedding, at a movie premier, and then on a park bench, him reading, she pregnant with one hand resting contentedly on her stomach. 

To reach this happy ending, Anna Scott needed to complete an important moral journey—from famed goddess to normal woman.  Will was the moral center whose decency drew her, the guidepost of normalcy and love she sought and eventually found.


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