From 'Notting Hill' to 'Bridget Jones': Why we love Richard Curtis, actually
Curtis's new movie 'Yesterday' is the latest feather in a cap very full of successful British romantic comedies
Richard Curtis’s work has long been celebrated for a wide variety of reasons. There’s his witty dialogue, his innate ability to find the perfect place for an expletive and his endless list of eccentric, yet loveable, side characters who steal a film and then help to instantly boost the careers of the actors who play them – I’m looking at you John Hannah (Four Weddings and a Funeral), Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill) and Bill Nighy (Love Actually).
But while Curtis’s success is undeniable, and his status as a bona fide British national treasure firmly secured, there’s an argument to be made that his screenwriting talent has been underappreciated. Rather than feeling aggrieved at this injustice, though, I’d imagine he would take it as a compliment.
Curtis doesn’t want you to know that a writer has spent months dreaming up quips and scribing his films. He wants it all to feel natural, like the words are being thought up on the spot and then tumble out of the actors’ mouths. The complete absence of indulgences and flagrant flourishes in his scripts only highlight just how well he’s been doing his job.
Richard Curtis is so proficient, everything about his romantic-comedies appears effortless. That’s what happens when you churn out classics of the genre, such as 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, 1999’s Notting Hill, and 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, in ridiculously quick succession. Curtis would be the first to declare just how hard it is to write and finish anything, though, let alone make a film that connects with audiences across the world.
He wrote 17 drafts of Four Weddings and a Funeral before finally getting it right, while after his second effort as a writer and director, The Boat that Rocked in 2009, underperformed in the UK, he cut out about 20 minutes and retitled it Pirate Radio for American audiences, only for it to flop there, as well.
Don’t feel too sorry for Curtis, though. Since Four Weddings and a Funeral, he has written nine other movies, with Yesterday, which references the music of The Beatles (see our interview with the star of the film, right), being his latest. The only other one to have underperformed is his 2014 adaptation of Andy Mulligan’s novel Trash, which was very much an independent effort compared to his other releases.
Combined, Curtis’s movies have grossed more than $1.9 billion (Dh6.9bn) worldwide, and with good reason, too. He likes to dabble in the universal theme of falling in love, and it also helps that he isn’t afraid to turn up the schmaltz and provide a definitive happy ending in order to turn his films into roaring crowd-pleasers.
This idealism and a lack of subtlety that’s dotted throughout Curtis’s oeuvre, has always meant that his films are seen as unfashionable, especially when coupled with just how popular they’ve been. But to overlook the cinematic hooks that he has found such joy with, would be doing him a great disservice.
Even something as simple as the title, Four Weddings and a Funeral, which is so immediately evocative and foreboding it could have been dreamt up by Agatha Christie, should be celebrated. Curtis knows that keeping things simple is cinematic gold dust. Notting Hill was immediately able to attract audiences by asking, “What if the world’s most famous actress fell in love with a nobody?” Even Yesterday, Curtis’ latest film, is trying the same trick, as it asks, “What if The Beatles never existed?”
Curtis knows that there needs to be a rich answer underneath these questions, though. Like Steven Spielberg with Jurassic Park and ET, which are as much about the characters Alan Grant overcoming his hatred of children and Elliott dealing with his absent dad, as they are about dinosaurs and aliens, Curtis has always made sure that his romantic-comedies have much bigger themes and ideas at play than first meets the eye.
Take Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and About Time. They deal with the fear of commitment, rediscovering your self-confidence, and living in the now, respectively. But rather than weighing down the films, they help to make their romantic stories more distinctive, resonant and truthful.
At the same time, Curtis has always managed to surround himself with the perfect cast and crew to illuminate and enhance the script he has written. The prowess of directors Mike Newell on Four Weddings and a Funeral and Roger Michell on Notting Hill became even more apparent when Curtis directed Love Actually, The Boat that Rocked and About Time, all three of which were criticised for either being too bloated or having too many plot holes.
But Curtis’s most endearing cinematic partnership has been with Hugh Grant. Which makes it even more startling that Curtis originally insisted Grant shouldn’t be cast to play Charles in Four Weddings and a Funeral as he was just too handsome.
Ever the humble professional, Curtis soon recognised the error of his ways and the pair have now collaborated on five films together. Grant bumbling his way through Curtis’s lines while being just attractive enough for the likes of Andie MacDowell and Julia Roberts, but too aloof to annoy or intimidate, is, in its own way, as perfect a cinematic pairing as Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon, Paul Thomas Anderson and Philip Seymour Hoffman, or David Lean and Alec Guinness.
When it comes to Yesterday, Curtis’s collaboration with Oscar-winner Danny Boyle has been front and centre of its promotional push, alongside its association with The Beatles. And while it is a push to suggest that Curtis’s pop culture footprint comes close to that of the Fab Four, watching him take his rightful place alongside the Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire director suggests that 25 years after bursting on to the mainstream scene, his impact and talent is finally being appreciated by all corners of the cinematic community.
'Yesterday' is out in UAE cinemas tomorrow
Updated: June 26, 2019 03:29 PM