Roger Michell: a quiet genius still hitting his stride

Roger Michell was the TV and movie director who had a midas touch with actors and with a particular type of English material: witty, literate, poignant and romantic. Michell was a master at directing anything on the continuum between Jane Austen and Richard Curtis, and knew what animated both.

He had what came to be seen as his masterpiece in 1999 with his international smash, the Richard Curtis-scripted comedy Notting Hill, in which he elicited great performances from Hugh Grant as the hopeless west London bookshop owner and Julia Roberts as the unattainable movie star with whom he falls wildly in love. Fans and non-fans alike will concede the schmaltzy but heartfelt power of that movie’s legendary scene in which Roberts tearfully begs Grant to love and forgive her: “I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy … ” Michell directed those two stars in that iconic scene with a master’s confidence.

But what is so devastatingly sad about his death now at the age of just 65 years old is that it comes before the national release of something festival audiences have been hailing as even better – his final film, the true-life comedy The Duke, starring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren, about the theft of the Wellington portrait from the National Gallery in 1961.

Like Stephen Frears or Mike Newell, Michell came up through the classic route: a grounding in drama and classical literature at university and – on graduating – in subsidised and non-subsidised theatre and then television work gave him a sense of where to place the camera and how to shape performance in relationship to the camera lens.

In 1995, he had a major career breakthrough directing an exhilaratingly confident and seductive BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion with Amanda Root as Anne Elliot and Ciarán Hinds as Captain Wentworth – it came out the same year as the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth sexily diving into the lake at Pemberley, and so Michell’s Austen was a little bit upstaged, but his work was respected and it was certainly admired by Curtis, who put him forward for Notting Hill.

The colossal success of Notting Hill made Michell a Hollywood player, a solidly grounded British professional who could take on anything and fearlessly wrangle the biggest stars. His drama-thriller Changing Lanes (2002) was a fiercely uncomfortable study in that once fashionable subject of anger management with Samuel L Jackson, Ben Affleck and Sydney Pollack. His next movie The Mother (2003), scripted by Hanif Kureishi was even more startling: Anne Reid starred as the older woman who has a passionate affair with a younger man – the pre-007 Daniel Craig.

The Ian McEwan novel Enduring Love – with the quibbling play on words in the title – returned Michell to his real gift for Englishness, romance and dark tragicomedy: the Joe Penhall adaptation in 1997 allowed Michell to exercise his skill with dialogue and actors, and if the result was a little slender, Michell certainly handled the legendary opening scene with the hot air balloon with great aplomb.

But it was in 2006 that Michell had a script – again from Kureishi, again with a May-to-December romantic theme – that allowed him to luxuriate in English romance and English regret. In Venus, Peter O’Toole, then 74, played an ageing English thespian who, with Larkinian sadness and unabashed yearning, falls in love and lust with the young great-niece of an old friend: this being Jessie, played by Jodie Whittaker. It is a classic piece of upscale British screen drama, and Michell handled it with great style, as ever giving prominence to the actors and their dialogue, rather than to any coercive directorial vision.

His more American movies Morning Glory (2010) and Hyde Park on Hudson (2012) were bigger-budgeted and glitzier films but did not have quite the flavour of his best work: Morning Story, with Rachel McAdams and Harrison Ford, is the gossipy drama about a TV morning show and Hyde Park on Hudson is an odd but underpowered drama about Britain’s new King and Queen (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) making a visit in 1939 to the American president, Franklin D Roosevelt, played in dreamy style by Bill Murray – perhaps there was no rapport between actors and director here.

Where there certainly was a rapport was in the later movies, Le Week-End (2013) with Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan having a bittersweet romantic getaway in Paris and My Cousin Rachel (2017), a thoroughly enjoyable romantic drama based on a Daphne du Maurier novel, starring a feline Rachel Weisz.

But it was with a documentary at about this time that Michell came up with a rip-roaring gem of a film with enough sheer enjoyment factor to match anything on his CV. It was his documentary Nothing Like A Dame in which he did nothing but sit Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright around a table and let them gossip about their careers, how the business has changed, how attitudes to women have changed (or not) and about the vain and impossible men they have had to work with.

It took a directing genius to let these vivid personalities speak so extensively and so hilariously about their work – perhaps the director’s job looked easy, but it cannot have been. This documentary joyfully played to all Michell’s strengths: his theatrical grounding, his style and wit and above all his great love of actors. It is such a sadness that he is gone.

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