18 July 1999 | LinOnnLine
Subtle, embedded messages emerge to create positive view of people with disabilities.
Notting Hill, this totally implausible, happily improbable, feel good flick, does more to influence positive attitudes about people with disabilities than any all day sensitivity training seminar could ever hope to accomplish.
As significant as the two leading characters is the ever-present, fanciful circle of friends. Wouldn't we all love to have a close group of intimate chums like these! The collection of assorted characters includes Bella, a woman who uses a wheelchair, a sleek Quickie Ultralight at that. I love the easy nonchalance of her introduction to the viewer. She is merely one of many diverse folks in the day-to-day life of William Thacker, the film's protagonist.
In one after-dinner scene, the group sits around a big, friendly, worn farmhouse table, consuming way too much wine and sharing what stinks about their life. Bella reveals that she and her husband discovered they cannot have children. I like that she also dares make a complaint about "sitting in this damn chair". She is being honest; she is not burdening herself with feelings that she should sugar-coat her life for others. Nor does she feel compelled to be upbeat and cheerful no matter the cost to her own integrity.
This character lives a typical, dare I say "normal" life. She is married, throws parties, gets drunk on occasion, and interacts with the able bodied world around her . . . all with unaffected naturalness. I like the message this sends to the viewing public: people with disabilities are a whole lot like people without disabilities.
In a scene when Anna Scott and William Thacker leave the birthday party celebration, the very first words out of Anna's mouth are, "Why is Bella in a wheelchair?" This is precisely, to the letter, as it would be in real life. When folks come in contact with a person with an obvious disability, they understandably want to know what happened.
Bella's husband tenderly lifts her out of her wheelchair to carry her up the staircase to bed. My thermometer was on . .. testing for feelings of excessive sympathy or sorrow in myself or in the audience. There were none. There was only empathy, warmth, and tenderness, much of what one would feel watching any loving couple where the man lifted the woman over a doorstep, for instance, into their first home. Kudos to the director and the actors for not playing the pity card here. Thankfully no soaring violins tugged at our tear ducts.
As the culminating scene of the movie approaches, the group of friends all impulsively jump into a small European car to race off. There was Bella left waving goodbye from her Quickie. No, wait a minute. This was not to be. They wanted Bella with them; she belonged with them on this mission. There were no complicated maneuvers of how will we squeeze her into the car, what will we do with the wheelchair, no exasperation from the characters. They just did it. They made it happen. Before we knew it, Bella was sitting in the front seat; a few others had rearranged their positions and crammed into the back seat, and off they all went charging away full speed ahead.
In a final scene, the friends are attempting to 'crash a private party' so to speak, and having trouble getting past the hotel management. In a boldly triumphant move, Bella comes wheeling authoritatively toward the hotel bureaucrat, confidently announcing in a power voice: "He is with ME. I am so-and-so from such-and-such journal writing an article on how your hotel treats people with disabilities."
Swoosh! All doors opened to the group! Bella saved the day in her quick-witted plot to get past the hotel magistrate. Aside from the glee I felt at her being the savior of the day, I also applaud the embedded message: Disability rights are expected; don't tread on disability civil rights; disability access is what's happenin' in the Nineties.
This film has broad cross-class mass appeal, from the teenybopper to Joe Six Pack to the intellectual, and therefore has the power to impact the sensibilities of millions of viewers. I applaud Notting Hill for its contribution toward influencing positive attitudes toward people with disabilities.