The Uncomfortable Weight of Female Silence in “Notting Hill”

The Uncomfortable Weight of Female Silence in “Notting Hill”

I recently watched “Notting Hill,” a landmark Richard Curtis film coming up on its 20-year anniversary. For those who haven’t seen it, the film focuses on the romance between William Thacker and Anna Scott — a struggling travel bookstore owner and international movie star, respectively. Will meets Anna when she stumbles into his store looking for a book about Turkey. The two exchange banter, and Anna leaves the shop… only to collide (literally) with Will a few minutes later, as he spills orange juice all over her. Double meet-cutes hence achieved, the viewer knows they’re locked into a romantic comedy for the ages. Or at least it seems that way.

Now, just to be clear, I didn’t hate “Notting Hill.” For the most part, it was the fairly light and semi-unrealistic fare we all expect from rom-coms — after all, how often do A-list celebrities just wander around London with no security detail? So I was prepared from the outset to suspend my disbelief. Yet even the lack of circumstantial realism was far from indicative of the issue I found with it, namely: that Anna Scott does not speak.

I don’t mean this in the literal sense. As many of you probably know, one of the most famous lines in romcom history comes from a scene in which Anna declares her love for Will. But such lines for her are few and far between. Even that scene, which is supposed to be Anna’s big moment to explain why they should be together, is mostly filled with Will talking about why they shouldn’t. And it’s not as though this is an exception to their usual dynamic — because in many scenes where Anna and Will seem on the verge of meaningful conversation, Anna remains frustratingly taciturn.

Take, for instance, the interview scene, which occurs toward the beginning of the movie after Anna and Will share an impromptu kiss. Anna apologizes to Will, saying she wants to make sure that he was “fine about it,” but then says practically nothing else. Yes, her publicist is in the room, and she’s a bit strongheld by Will’s own babbling, but still: this scene is a mere half hour into the film, and already makes the pairing feel unnatural and uncomfortable.

She continues to let him do the talking for the next few scenes. They attend a dinner party together and she’s standoffish with his friends (except for a brief surge of extroversion when she talks about how hard it is to be a movie star). She’s quiet as they walk together through London, even as they break into a gated community, which you’d think would be the perfect icebreaker.

Then Anna invites Will up to her hotel room, and her reticence is somewhat illuminated: she has a boyfriend. This, at least, lends some authenticity to what previously just seemed like a poor character choice — Anna did not want to accidentally reveal too much of herself to Will, both for fear of getting attached and of him finding out. Heartbroken, Will leaves the hotel and tries to forget about Anna.

But just a short time later, she shows up on his doorstep in tears because of a tabloid scandal. And here’s where the movie falters for me: he lets her in, despite the fact that they barely know each other, and she was fully prepared to cheat on her ex-boyfriend with him. Which completely erases the impact of the hotel scene, and makes it seem as though Anna’s silence was never meant to hold the weight of her guilt and conflicted feelings at all — rather, it was only meant to make her appear mysterious, unlike the archetypal vivacious movie star. Will doesn’t let her in because he really knows her and loves her; he lets her in because she’s a beautiful enigma. Not an improbable reason, of course, but also not terribly satisfying for the viewer.ñn

Following this, our couple starts to open up to each other and have genuine, back-and-forth conversations. But in my opinion, by the time this part of the movie arrives, it’s too late: the first hour does so little to establish a true connection between the couple, and then dismisses Anna’s dishonesty so easily, that it’s hard to get invested after that.

Again, I don’t hate “Notting Hill,” and I’m certainly not on the “Anna Scott is the worst” team, though she does make some questionable decisions. I still enjoyed the film despite Anna’s quiet demeanor and the impression that very little thought was put into it, other than “silence is sexy.” I’ve enjoyed many other films, and certainly many other romcoms, with similarly inconsistent or unrealistic characters. But though I was able to turn my brain off for the second half of this movie, the weight of Anna’s silence still nagged at me after it was over.

Rewatching the first hour of “Notting Hill” really drives home how odd and uncomfortable this silence, even in the known context of her infidelity — because she doesn’t seem uncertain or regretful when kissing Will, or accepting his dinner invitations, she just seems quiet. This alone is not enough to create a character’s personality, especially when the character in question is herself a movie star. For someone whose livelihood depends on delivering lines, it simply doesn’t make sense for Anna Scott to have so few in her own story.

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