Obituaries: Roger Michell, director who had his biggest hit with Notting Hill

Roger Michell, film and theatre director. Born: 5 June 1956 in Pretoria, South Africa. Died: 22 September 2021, aged 65

Roger Michell at the 77th Venice Film Festival in 2020 (Picture: Alberto Pizolli/AFP via Getty Images)

Roger Michell was hardly a household name, but he had a distinguished career in film and theatre, with early success at the Edinburgh Fringe. And he directed a film that, for a while at least, was the highest-grossing British film ever made.

Michell was nervous after agreeing to direct the romcom Notting Hill, which aimed to repeat the success of the smash hit Four Weddings and a Funeral, with another script from Richard Curtis, and actor Hugh Grant effectively reprising the role of the charming, laid-back romantic lead. Notting Hill co-starred Hollywood superstar Julia Roberts, it came out in 1999 and it duly surpassed the box-office achievements of Four Weddings, holding on to the British box-office record until Harry Potter waved his wand over cinema audiences a few years later.

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Its success opened the door to Hollywood for Michell and he was at the helm for Changing Lanes, a thriller which starred Samuel L Jackson and Ben Affleck and was both a commercial and critical success.

But health problems forced him to drop out of the film adaptation of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and creative differences led to his departure from the James Bond film Quantum of Solace. He was unnerved by the fact that there was a release date, but no script. It is widely regarded as the weakest of Daniel Craig’s Bond movies.

Michell also directed Venus, with Peter O’Toole and Jodie Whittaker, and the 2017 version of Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, with Rachel Weisz.

He never regarded himself as an auteur and much of his most celebrated work was on stage. “Film and theatre are the most collaborative of the arts,” he said. “That’s their appeal. The idea that it’s the director who owns the film is preposterous. It’s the director’s role to marshal everyone else’s creativity.”

Michell’s father was in the diplomatic service and he was born in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1956. A peripatetic childhood included a period in Czechoslovakia at the time of the Prague Spring and subsequent Soviet invasion in 1968.

He went to boarding school in Bristol, where he wrote and directed plays, an interest he developed during student days at Queen’s College, Cambridge,

After graduating came a period as an assistant director at the Royal Court Theatre in London, where he worked with Samuel Beckett. Royal Court contemporaries included Hanif Kureishi, with whom he would later work in television and film.

He attracted attention at the Edinburgh Fringe and won a Scotsman Fringe First award in 1980 with Private Dick, a spoof on Raymond Chandler, which he wrote and directed with Richard Maher. It transferred to the London West End with Robert Powell in the lead role.

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Michell spent several years as a resident director with the Royal Shakespeare Company and made the move to television in the 1990s with Downtown Lagos, a three-part thriller.

It was followed by The Buddha of Suburbia, a four-part adaptation of Kureishi’s autobiographical novel about a mixed-race teenager in London in the 1970s, and by a well-regarded adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, starring Ciaran Hinds.

Notting Hill was only Michell’s third cinema film, after My Night with Reg, which was about a group of gay men at a funeral for a friend who has died of Aids, and Titanic Town, which is set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. Titanic Town reunited him with Ciaran Hinds and also starred Julie Walters.

Hugh Grant and Richard Curtis had huge success with Four Weddings and a Funeral, the romcom which teamed Grant with Andie MacDowell. Notting Hill had a similar feel, though Grant was playing a different character, a bookshop owner, who “meets cute” with a Hollywood star, played by Julia Roberts, when he accidentally pours his orange juice over her.

She responds by inviting him to the Ritz Hotel, where he pretends to be a reporter for Horse and Hound magazine and romance blossoms from there. The public, or at least a large section of it, also fell for Grant’s charms and it grossed $364 million worldwide, with video and television receipts to follow.

Hollywood loves money. Changing Lanes was a hit and despite a few setbacks Michell could have pursued his fortunes in the US, but he was drawn back to England and smaller projects on screen and stage.

He did work with Daniel Craig, not on a James Bond movie, but on The Mother, a 2003 drama, written by Kureishi, with Craig as a handyman and the object of lust for a much older widow, played by Anne Reid.

Michell was a calm, unassuming and popular figure in the business, with whom actors and writers enjoyed working. He and Craig worked together again on an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love.

His final film, The Duke, was highly praised at the Venice Film Festival. A comedy about a stolen painting, it stars Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren and will be released next year.

Michell’s first marriage, to the actress Kate Buffery, ended in divorce. He was subsequently married to the actress Anna Maxwell Martin, though they separated last year. He is survived by two children from each relationship.

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