Barry Jenkins, director of last year’s Oscars Best Picture Winner, Moonlight, is no stranger to the magic of moviemaking — which made his live-tweeted first-time viewing of Notting Hill all the more wondrous and entertaining to behold.
Whether or not you’re a fan of the 1999 romantic comedy, which stars Hugh Grant as an unassuming London bookstore owner named William and Julia Roberts as Anna, the Julia Roberts-ish megastar actress who falls in love with him, Jenkins’s recent tweetstorm about the film makes a compelling case that it’s a classic for a reason. His reactions to Notting Hill — which he recently experienced on a flight by peering over the shoulder of a seatmate during the last leg of a transatlantic journey — are a fun reminder of how plainly delightful the movies can be.
In other news, the woman next to me is watching NOTTING HILL. A few choice folks will get the irony of this happening on my last flight of this sojourn. Also... Julia Roberts is STUNNING in this film. And holy shit Lester Freamon is in this?!— Barry Jenkins (@BarryJenkins) January 4, 2018
At first, Jenkins was captivated by the clever cinematic moves of Notting Hill’s director, Roger Michell:
After peeping these dolly/zoom combos in this dinner scene I looked up the director and OF COURSE it’s Roger Michell!!! a G and a Gent, was a Telluride regular for quite some time.— Barry Jenkins (@BarryJenkins) January 4, 2018
However, it was a long, rough flight, apparently accompanied by alcohol, and Jenkins was watching the film without sound while distracted by his own live-tweeting. This led to some interesting developments:
Okay I maybe should stop drinking I had NO IDEA that woman was in a wheelchair. Like... is that a reveal or did I just miss it??? I mean, obviously this thread is being helped along by our friend Woodford Reserve— Barry Jenkins (@BarryJenkins) January 4, 2018
Wow and now she is PISSED!!! Because I was looking at my phone figuring out how to do a poll I have no idea why she is pissed— Barry Jenkins (@BarryJenkins) January 4, 2018
Though watching without audio meant he consequently missed out on hearing the witty bon mots of rom-com guru Richard Curtis, who wrote Notting Hill as well as other ’90s/early-aughts British classics like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually, Jenkins still caught and praised technical aspects of the film, like the camerawork and the “superb” makeup art. He also critiqued the notable whiteness of the titular fictional version of London’s famously upscale neighborhood, despite the multicultural flavor of the real Notting Hill.
THIS!!! I’m trying to keep this light but I just spent a week staying in a hotel in Notting Hill (don’t ask ) Anyway, saw tons of black folks, lot of Jamaican, Caribbean heartbeat that was beating LOUDLY in this time period https://t.co/HmpkqN5HAK— Barry Jenkins (@BarryJenkins) January 4, 2018
Unsurprisingly, as Jenkins was publicly documenting his intermittent, haphazard viewing, his tweets drew fans of the film — as well as some of his famous friends — to look on in delight:
Barry Jenkins live-tweeting his silent watch of Notting Hill is:— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) January 4, 2018
2. Giving me life https://t.co/4nYuWMbUQj
But alas, Jenkins didn’t weigh in on what is perhaps the best part of Notting Hill — which comes right after this unexpected moment:
SHE LEFT?! SHE WALKED OUT THE DOOR!!!!!!! THIS MOVIE IS THE SHIT!!!!!— Barry Jenkins (@BarryJenkins) January 4, 2018
At this point in the film, Anna — angry that the paparazzi has discovered her and William’s relationship, has said goodbye to her love and returned to her life in Hollywood. It’s precisely the moment where most other rom-coms might opt for a classic change of heart scene in which the hero realizes his mistake and rushes after the heroine, or vice versa. There might even be a brief period of separation, usually depicted in an emotional montage, before an unexpected meeting brings them back together.
But Notting Hill refreshingly takes a different path, choosing to separate William and Anna for an entire year before they tentatively reconnect.
It’s not clear if Jenkins really missed the action around this scene, or simply didn’t discuss it on Twitter — per an earlier tweet, spotty plane wifi meant that not all of his tweets posted successfully, and he was also working on “actual writing” while the movie was playing. Given the number of distractions he was facing, it’d be no surprise if didn’t see it. But his silence only served to inspire a discussion of its greatness among Notting Hill fans, and if you take a few minutes to watch (or rewatch) it, it’s easy to see why.
Yep, thinking the same thing... @BarryJenkins missed having his heart broken by that stunning "seasons" tracking shot to "Ain't No Sunshine." Just... perfection.— Susan Boyer (@susanjenna) January 4, 2018
Oh @BarryJenkins, if only Bill Withers could have broken your heart during the "passing of the seasons" scene... never has "Ain't No Sunshine" been used to better effect.— Susan Boyer (@susanjenna) January 4, 2018
To illustrate this passage of time, director Michell stages one of the simplest and greatest transition sequences in recent film memory — set to the tune of Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine”:
This scene, which looks like one long tracking shot but was actually split into multiple shots and reportedly filmed all in one day, effortlessly deploys a host of different cinematic techniques to tell its story — making wonderful use of everything from camerawork and editing to special effects, staging, costuming, lighting design, and setting.
The complete cohesion of all these elements is evident even in the structure of the shot itself: Michell strategically uses scenery as William is walking through Notting Hill’s Portobello Road marketplace to effectively occlude our awareness that different shots have been edited together to create the appearance of a single long take. Details like changing lighting, William taking off or putting on a jacket, and a full cast of extras engrossed in mini-dramas around him all combine to depict seasonal change even without weather effects.
Through it all, the soundtrack of Withers’s famous heartache ballad tells us exactly what our hero is feeling as he struggles and fails to move on from Anna over time.
And finally, the background details, like the romances and breakups of some of the extras, or the woman who bookends the sequence — pregnant when it begins, and smiling and holding her baby when it ends — remind us that the story of William and Anna is only one tiny love story in a world full of them.
It’s almost unheard of for the best moment in a romantic comedy to come at its lowest emotional point, when it seems like the hero and heroine have split, for good, and will never get back together. But that’s one of many things that make Notting Hill unique in the annals of the genre.
For one thing, this scene is actually not the final word on what happens with William and Anna — it takes the pair multiple starts and stops to figure things out. And for another, Notting Hill’s best moments arguably have very little to do with the couple’s romance. As typified in a famous scene in which Anna starts dropping truth bombs about what it’s really like to be a famous actress in Hollywood, it’s a movie that opts for a degree of verisimilitude amid its very fantastical, optimistic depictions of love. And the grain of truth grounding its escapism is what makes Notting Hill feel more resonant and real.
Jenkins could clearly see as much on his long flight, even without the benefit of hearing the audio — but I hope he gets a chance at some point to revisit Notting Hill in its full glory, because he’s only scratched the surface of what it has to offer.