1999, 2001, 2003, Academic, Alan Rickman, Bill Nighy, Bridget Jones' Diary, British Cinema, Christmas, Colin Firth, Comedy, Emma Thompson, Film, Film essay, Film Studies, Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Liam Neeson, Love Actually, Martin Freeman, Martine McCutcheon, Notting Hill, Renee Zellweger, Richard Curtis, Romance, Romantic-Comedy, university
The 1990s and early 2000s saw the rise of genres that reached a peak in contemporary British cinema, one of which Robert Murphy identifies as the romantic-comedy. Influenced by Vladimir Propp’s theory of morphology in the folktale, Murphy writes in his article Citylife: Urban Fairy-Tales (2000: 292) that released romantic-comedies during this existing period, notably those written by Richard Curtis, underpin a fairy-tale structure. Although realism has been a predominant theme of British filmmaking, Murphy’s idea of a fairy-tale Britain suggests that romantic-comedies, such as Notting Hill (Michell, 1999), Bridget Jones’ Diary (Maguire, 2001) and Love Actually (Curtis, 2003), reflect romantic aspects of everyday life and represent the nation as glorious. Murphy further claims that narratives are stylised as “a magical quest” (2000: 293) for goal-orientated protagonists who fulfill a happy ending by defeating the villain which, according to Mather, “has been a part of the Hollywood formula since the 1920s” (2006: 120). This mythological representation of contemporary Britain reinforces the notions of British Hollywood and, “Britishness” (Leggott, 2008: 55), which refers to an exploitation of British culture within an American market. Therefore, Murphy’s ideas not only coincide with the fairy-tale structure, but also classic Hollywood romantic-comedies. Thus, this essay will analyse each romantic-comedy as briefly introduced with reference to Murphy’s theory of fairy-tale narrative style, mythological characterisations and British locations serving as an enchanting landscape and urban theme.
A standard fairy-tale storyline is in a linear form which, according to Murphy, “begin either with a lack which must be remedied, […] a curse which has to be removed, […] or a harmonious situation which is disrupted and has to be restored” (2000: 293). Although these fairy-tale plots have previously been most prominent in the fantasy genre, British romantic comedies metaphorically cast a fairy-tale story through real-life disputes. As Bacchilega states, “narratives set the socially acceptable boundaries for such scenarios and option, thus serving more than others, the civilising aspirations of adults” (1997: 5). Love Actually, for instance, reflects a fairy-tale storyline in an episodic structure, a dominant narrative formula in British cinema. Despite this, it is structured chronologically similar to traditional Hollywood storylines and it explores the romantic lives of multiple middle-class people who illustrate different trends of relationships with love serving as the central premise.
The fact that the film’s time setting is Christmas also enhances a fairy-tale structure as it serves as both a plot element and a romantic theme. As Steiner comments, “Christmas should shine as a light of peace, a light that brings outward peace only because it sheds inner peace into human hearts” (2007: 17). The climax is the school play on Christmas Eve, which coincidentally unites main protagonists, some of whom are associated despite the episodic narrative. We see relationships that both form, such as David (Hugh Grant) and Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), and break, including Harry (Alan Rickman) and Karen (Emma Thompson), that demonstrate expressing love at Christmas and the consequences of violating it. Love Actually does not strictly centralise Christmas customs, but the joy it bestows among individuals within the film excuses them to express love. Therefore, the tradition becomes a fantasy-like concept to representing a happier and more positive outlook of Britain as opposed to confronting the oppressive reality of the country’s suffering. On the other hand, Notting Hill is structured in a more straight-forward narrative that presents its protagonist William Thacker (Hugh Grant), a middle-class bookstore owner who, by chance, encounters film star Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) and progressively begin a relationship. However, their happily ever after is halted by both characters having personal obstacles in their lives – William’s status being recently divorced, which can often be relatable to the audience, and Anna facing stardom pressures. Their romance is an escapist solution from reality, and their opposing issues are what unite them. According to Mathers, this is to “celebrate the idea of a union between two mutually attracted and well-suited lovers, even as its narratives simultaneously formulated a series of conflicting viewpoints, events and circumstances capable of keeping the couples-in-question apart until the very end” (2006: 122). The couple’s first meeting is significant to the fairy-tale as it takes place in William’s bookstore, that specifically features travel books. This symbolically embodies escape, particularly on Anna’s behalf from Hollywood, and a possible happily ever after ending for them.
David Rose describes these props and their significance as magical objects which “must strike a balance between practicality and pleasure, form and function” (2014: 65). Although Murphy’s article was strictly limited regarding this enchanting object in British fairy-tale stories, their influences are crucial to the central hero or heroine within this magical quest concept. This is because specific items help utilise protagonists confront and overcome complications to reach their goal. In Bridget Jones’ Diary, its titular character (Renée Zellweger) possesses a written journal to “tell the whole truth” and its contents are used as voice-over narration. Bacchilega states that the narrator “allows us to assign narrative and ideological responsibility to the so-called “third person” narrator who, thanks to the naturalizing “once upon a time” fairy-tale theme, is usually considered to be objective” (1997: 17). This method becomes central to telling spectators about Bridget’s love life and her connotations as the female protagonist in a love triangle. On a visual level, the diary’s significance is established in one particular over-the-shoulder shot of Bridget writing whilst simultaneously narrating its contents, and close-ups are symbolic, also, as the diary becomes a character. The use of on-screen text effects, which feature Bridget’s standard intake of alcohol, cigarettes and her weight, at this particular moment is crucial to perhaps designating the audience with an insight to Bridget’s status as, what Murphy describes, “a beggar-maid” (2000: 294).
Murphy defines this as a young woman who possesses characteristics that lack feminine, princess-like purity, whether due to physical appearance or emotional behaviour (2000: 294). Bridget’ issues of her job, age and especially weight, are vital to her status as an ugly duckling-like woman. Collier and Saenger state that “one of the themes of the film is Bridget’s ineptitude, which is often used comically to illustrate her negative self-image” (2002: 78). This is highlighted in the opening credits sequence featuring Bridget in her pyjamas whilst singing to All By Myself by Celine Dion. The song lyrics correspond to her situation and director Sharon Maguire illustrates this by use of medium shot with Bridget in centre frame as she is miming the words. This could suggest that the song, like voice-over narration from her diary, could be inside her mind. Similarly from the same scene, we see a wide shot of Bridget smoking and drinking wine. As previously stated, both alcohol and cigarettes are issues in her life to relinquish, and we see in this particular shot that it has become a problem for her. Dissolved editing within the same shot implies the passing of time relating to Bridget’s loneliness, her lack of motivation and her “32 years of being single”. It is unclear whether All By Myself is played on Bridget’s cassette or if it is merely non-diegetic sound to create a sympathetic illusion, but it is substantial to introducing her beggar-maid lifestyle at the film’s early stage. Bettleheim also notes that “a struggle against severe difficulties in life is avoidable […] but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious” (1991: 9). Upon learning that Mark (Colin Firth) loves her “just the way she is”, Bridget neither loses weight nor progresses in circulating her cigarette or alcohol consumption. As a result, she becomes a Cinderella heroine as she finds her Prince Charming in Mark with a ‘happily ever after’ resolution.
Murphy further states that female protagonists in British romantic-comedies are immediately presented to us as princesses purely because of their natural beauty or status within society. Referring to women in fairy-tales, Bacchilega comments that “motherhood and feminine beauty appear as “natural” because the mother’s wish, the child’s conception, and the child herself are represented as imitating nature” (1997: 32). Murphy’s claim of princesses facing individual issues is crucial to becoming the male protagonist’s reward, which further clarifies Bacchilega’s argument that women in fairy-tale stories are represented as constructions, not just a gender (1997: 9). Anna in Notting Hill is a prominent example as she is immediately portrayed in the opening sequence as a goddess-like princess, primarily through her Hollywood stardom. There are a number of filmic techniques that establish Anna as a princess. The use of voice-over narration in the film’s opening seconds promotes her fame as “Hollywood’s biggest star by far” and the non-diegetic sound of the song She by Elvis Costello, specifically its lyrics, represent her natural beauty. This occurs whilst seeing montage-like footage of Anna at events, such as premieres and conferences, with key lighting and the camera at a close-up or extreme close-up angles following her; therefore ensuring the spectator’s attention on her. Similar to the credits sequence in Bridget Jones’ Diary, we see a recurring use of dissolved editing to transcend narrative time, which in Anna’s case is her lengthy stardom in Hollywood.
However, it is those circumstances that prevent her from a happily ever after ending. Referring to everyday Britain, Murphy notes “Anna is lured from the vacuous superficiality of a Hollywood lifestyle by the promise of life in a city of tranquil parks […], street markets she can peruse with only minimal intrusions into her privacy and friends who, even when in awe of her, act in a natural, unsycophantic way” (2000: 298-299). She primarily seeks an escape from Hollywood by developing an interest in the everyday lifestyle; thereby portraying the travel books’ significance and her relationship with an everyday citizen. Her romance with William opposes social classes, as established in the film’s tagline “can the most famous film star in the world fall for the man in the street?”, and becomes a struggle for a resolution.
To an extent, this conspiracy suggests Anna’s fame is synonymous with Julia Roberts’ at the time who, as Geraghty notes, exemplifies “the way in which stardom can be built on and around celebrity” (2007: 106). We get minor hints of this connection, such as Anna’s past salary of $15 million being the same as Roberts’ for Notting Hill (Mather, 2006: 160). Ashby and Higson further propose that “the impact that she [Anna] has on the ordinary British people she meets in the film can be seen as a metaphor for British cinema’s relation to Hollywood” (2000: 16). Notting Hill’s linear narrative structure, as used frequently in 1930s Hollywood romantic-comedies, like It Happened One Night (Capra, 1934), is crucial to reflecting the style within contemporary Britain. Notting Hill was distributed by America’s Universal Pictures, despite its mainly British characters, cast and crew, though Street states that this “represents a conservative bolstering of exclusive notions of ‘Britishness’” (2007: 185). Therefore, Notting Hill is ultimately a Hollywood production and implementing this bookmark, along with Roberts in the leading role, enhances a worldwide appeal and a touch of Hollywood within Britain.
Similar to how women are represented, male protagonists are what Murphy describes as “sleeping princes and frogs waiting to be kissed” (2000: 295). They appear handsome and sophisticated, which they are seemingly unaware of, and possess no machismo features of masculinity. Hugh Grant is perhaps the most noticeable star within these features, not only because he appears in all three films analysed in this paper, but also his general star status that enhances a prince-like context. Street states that “his [Grant] persona is that of the well-bred Englishman whose off-screen behaviour merely confirms stereotypes about upper-class hypocrisy over sexual matters” (1997: 146). In this sense, Grant is a typecast actor whose characters are usually the handsome and cultured individual who represents the charming males in Britain. In relation to Murphy’s idea of a sleeping prince, Notting Hill further explores William’s personal complications before claiming his reward – Anna, specifically his unique lifestyle with flatmate Spike (Rhys Ifans), his social life among inefficient friends and most importantly – recuperating from his recent divorce and new ambition for love.
Considering Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’ Diary both belong in a straightforward linear plot that have individual heroes and heroines, Love Actually’s episodic structure features a variety of characters who underpin a prince and princess relationship. For instance, David, the Prime Minister, underpins a prince-like protagonist who, like many in the film, seeks love at Christmas. As Mather comments “Love Actually is fascinating for the manner in which Hugh Grant’s character is elevated to the position of a British Prime Minister, who is revealed to be more concerned with the state of his love life than the ‘state of the nation’” (2006: 2). His responsibilities appear a great deal to him which suggests that he himself is another everyday citizen like others in the film. Like William and Anna in Notting Hill, David’s relationship with Natalie shapes romantic boundaries among opposing social classes within a fantastical context. To an extent, Natalie resembles a Bridget Jones-like princess, especially regarding weight when an ex-boyfriend supposedly said “nobody would fancy a girl with thighs the size of tree trunks” and even her father called her “plumpy”. However, this is not an issue directly addressed in the plot nor does the prince, David, recognise it. Considering this, Natalie’s red dress symbolises romance which establishes a princess formula in the climatic Christmas play sequence and David becomes her prince. On the other hand, other female protagonists in Love Actually, such as Juliet (Keira Knightley) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), are portrayed as more direct princesses like Anna in Notting Hill. The wedding video sequence demonstrates the concept of feminine beauty resembling a princess formula. Progressively revealing to be footage entirely of Juliet, a slow zoom between shots captures the character reactions and the footage, which mainly consisted of close-ups, adds a magnifying effect of Juliet’s image as a princess. The use of non-diegetic sound also adds a sense of emotional drama on part of Juliet learning about Mark’s (Andrew Lincoln) attraction towards her.
Similarly, Aurelia is another princess who falls in love with Jamie (Colin Firth) despite opposing cultural backgrounds and fluent languages, though Murphy claims “unlikely romances can blossom” (2000: 296). The most significant prince-princess scene is Jamie’s climatic proposal in the restaurant. The framing resembles a princess in the tower situation with the prince arriving to rescue her. This is established in Aurelia’s positioning of a low-angled shot with Christmas tinsel and lights in the background to glisten the romance, whereas a high-angled shot of Jamie reflects a gaze from her viewpoint. We also see further close-up shots that tighten the romantic situation and enhance audience involvement. Aurelia, consequently, accepts Jamie’s proposal and they have their happy ending.
Moreover, despite the protagonists encountering personal issues that delay a happily ever after resolution, Murphy suggests that supporting characters are categorised into “wizards, witches, friends and foes” (2000: 295). Murphy’s emphases of this are strictly limited, though he does state that particularly villains violate romance and are “much less formidable than in traditional fairy-tales” (2000: 295). Propp also noted that the villain is “transformed into a relative of the hero in spite of the fact that his attributes might plainly coincide with those of a dragon, a witch etc” (1928: 86). Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) in Bridget Jones’ Diary, for instance, appears a prince, but is later revealed as the wizard who has bewitched the beggar maid. This idea is perhaps made clearer from Grant’s character-actor persona who, according to Gibson, “plays against type – he is not the hapless hero but the classic cad” (2003: 368). Similarly, Anna Scott’s boyfriend Jeff King (Alec Baldwin) is another villain whose appearance is more of a cameo to briefly intervene in the fairy-tale story. As Mather comments, “his [Jeff] arrival reduces William to the level of a supporting player, rather than a true match for the star” (2006: 164). However, despite Murphy states that women are mainly portrayed as princesses, we see a witch-like figure in Mia (Heike Makatsch) from Love Actually whose witchcraft is attractiveness, noticeably in her devil costume and lingerie segments. Like Daniel bewitches Bridget, Mia metaphorically casts a spell upon Harry who becomes intrigued by her. Mia is not strictly categorised as a villain, but that she stands between a married couple in a fairy tale context implies it.
Considering Murphy argues that individuals within the everyday citizen foreground are structured into fairy-tale characterisations, he also claims that their surroundings, specifically the city of London and the mise-en-scéne, are significant to illustrating modern British society within a fairy-tale structure. As Napper comments, London is “often presented as utopian fantasy of the actual city” (2012: 391), and it provides a place where couples have the leisure to be together. In the opening credits of Love Actually, extreme wide-shots of central London, perhaps in a slideshow structure, form a geometric alignment with Christmas props in the centre, which presents the landscape with an artistic and peaceful value. Similarly during the Jamie-Aurelia storyline, we see further extreme wide shots and often close-ups of garden landscapes, including trees and flowers, and the countryside house which enhances a peaceful significance. The countryside further adds perhaps the most fantastical concept out of all the storylines as it becomes a metaphoric escape from the city.
In Notting Hill, the sequence of William strolling through London markets in four different seasons “looks back to the middlebrow British cinema of the 1930s and 1940s, with its collection of ordinary people from different backgrounds and walks of life, clearly situated within a thriving local community” (Ashby and Higson, 2000: 15-16). We see that in a tracking shot William’s framed position remaining the same but narrative time and location is altered through cuts with mise-en-scéne, such as vehicles, filling the screen whilst the camera is moving. Furthermore, Stella Hockenhull’s suggestion of the landscape invoking an emotional response (2014: 9), specifically the characters and their circumstances, underpins Kristi McKim’s argument of cinematic weather possessing a narrative and stylistic significance, particularly snow which “constitutes atmosphere […] and often serves as a moving white screen upon and through which melancholic loss or ecstatic joy comes to be writ” (2013: 134). Snow appears in all three films but in the final scene of Bridget Jones’ Diary, it comprises to a fairy-tale happy ending. The extreme-wide and tracking shots of wintry London with the climate serves as both a foreground and background aesthetic in medium and close-up shots of Bridget, the newly reformed Cinderella, having found her prince charming Mark. In this scene, the snow’s spiritual significance is prominent in its happy ending and the ‘loves first kiss’ idea in fairy-tale stories. Director Maguire utilises this through close-ups with kisses in centre frame all from different angles, suggesting nearby witness perspectives, and dissolved editing between shots stretches time to witness the kissing and happy ending. The film concludes in a spiritual notion with a crane shot that provides an overhead view of the couple’s romance with snow dropping from the sky before fading to black.
Thus, each film concludes with happy endings or resolutions like traditional fairy-tale stories. This linear structure can, in some ways, be predictable but the important aspects of Bridget Jones’ Diary, Love Actually and Notting Hill are that they centre on contemporary issues with Murphy’s underpinning concept of fairy tale Britain progressively contributing a feel-good factor. Finally, these films demonstrate an essence of Hollywood within them whilst maintaining a sense of British independent filmmaking and have since been popular hits. As Street concludes, “the success of many British films which did not look as if they were American, or cost as much, indicates that Hollywood did not entirely call the shots” (1997: 198).