Perhaps in the end, all British people want to be convinced that Hollywood stars would much rather be living in England. And not living in England like Gwennie used to before her ‘conscious uncoupling’, writing ecstatically in her scary lifestyle blog about her yoga retreats and the best way to make your own almond milk. No, we’d like to imagine they’re just like us – complaining half-heartedly about tube delays, drinking English Breakfast, putting up with twattish British men on unsatisfactory mini-breaks and popping out of a Thursday evening for sharing plates with their mates in overpriced bistros. Why bother with all those palm trees and red carpets when you could be enjoying half a pint of mild in a draughty pub somewhere?
Anyway, a long time ago (17 years! I’ll give you a moment to mourn the inevitable yet astonishing passing of time) in a galaxy far, far away (West London is basically its own universe) Gwyneth Paltrow brit-ed up like a trouper to join John Hannah in giving us that classic of the rom-com genre, Sliding Doors. Still occasionally popping up as shorthand to describe the ‘what might have been’ effect, the moral of the story appears to be that if mildly bad things happen (missing your train) you shouldn’t worry because everything will turn out pretty great in the end, at least right up until you (spoilers) die traumatically and prematurely. If mildly good things happen (catching your train), then this just means that you’ll be in blissful ignorance of the terrible things happening all around you for a while longer. No honestly, it’s a rom-com, but writing a proper plot synopsis for this one is up there with trying to explain Primer. The only thing you really need to know is that there are two Gwyneth Paltrows in this film, differentiated by their haircuts and living out two parallel existences after a significant split in their timelines (like Terry Pratchett’s ‘Trousers of Time’ theory but with more public transport).
In 1997 John Hannah had That Scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral under his belt, but his biggest gig was probably the lead character in McCallum, a TV pathologist drama like an early Silent Witness only slightly grittier and with a better theme tune, more Celtic accents and a lot more shagging (reviews tend to remark on the frequency with which you can see his bum, though thankfully – or not, depending on your worldview – googling produced no reference material). Still, whichever way you look at it he’s not traditional romantic leading man material – certainly not opposite your basic Hollywood royalty. Imagine Robert Carlyle being paired up with Scarlett Johansson, James Nesbitt sweeping Sandra Bullock off her feet, Ken Stott bumping uglies with Nicole Kidman.
Still, it actually works, despite Hannah’s leading man James being given some classic hero/ stalker paradox stuff (forcing a conversation on British public transport against all accepted etiquette, turning up uninvited at Helen’s (Paltrow’s) house after overhearing her address, lying about his separated wife, and basically employing techniques probably endorsed by those creepy ‘playa’ male dating books that advocate preying on emotionally vulnerable women). He also gets lumbered with a bizarre Monty Python based catchphrase and terrible lines like ‘You look all stressed up with nowhere to go’. (This to a woman he knows has just lost her job and who is even now crying into her own wine glass alone in a bar. Pro-tip: don’t try this at home, non-fictional men).
Perhaps it’s how his chatty Scottish eyebrow-led charms contrast so well with Helen’s cool and realistic English reserve. She’s not the only US actor to get the accent down but it isn’t often that you can suspend disbelief and stop looking out for signs of the interloper (excellent teeth are usually a bad sign). Gwyneth has that diffident, would-rather-die-than-be-rude-to-a-stranger side eye/ head tilt thing to a tee. It probably helps that she’s contrasted with Jeanette Tripplehorn who looks so American she might have come straight off the boat, all lush pout and improbably bouncy hair. Lines like Gwyneth’s ‘I come home and find you up to your nuts in lady shagging Godiva!’ take on a certain visceral pleasure when you contemplate it’s a West Coaster saying them. Admittedly Jeanette does at one point complain she’s stubbed her toe ‘On the shagging bath’ but her unfortunate lack of intonation suggests that she bypassed the standard tub before bashing into the receptacle reserved exclusively for intercourse.
This film is as English as it gets, really (despite the overwhelmingly Scottish/Irish supporting cast which feels oddly realistic in diaspora London). The brown haired, lager drinking, curry eating version of Gwyneth looks astonishingly ordinary, with her plaits and her baggy waitress’ outfit. She could have used it to slip the paparazzi when she and Chris Martin fancied a quiet afternoon at the shops (I assume, perhaps unfairly, that when not on stage Chris just blends into the background naturally, like a large moth).
The weirdest thing is how undated this film actually looks, despite the quality of my DVD being so bad that it looks like it’s been copied from VHS by someone with a penchant for repeatedly rewinding the dirty bits. Perhaps it’s because in posh-ish white stuccoed West London, noting really changes that much? If we were seeing the hoi-polloi going about their 1997 business then there would surely be a few allusions to Acid House, cheap ecstasy, internet chat rooms and unflattering grunge fashions. But Sliding Doors exists in that comfortable middle class bubble where the real world doesn’t really have to intrude unless you want it too (though it’s a million miles less aspirational than anything Richard Curtis would have come up with, despite best friend and apparent artist Anna’s mysteriously opulent Victorian vibed house). Gerry might be writing his novel on a typewriter and going to the library for research trips (how quaint!) but you get the feeling that’s entirely his own pretension.
Having said this there are obvious signs that the nineties really were another country, and it makes for glorious bits of nostalgia. Helen’s matt berry lipstick, eyebrows in the classic ‘anorexic tadpole’ style and occasional cropped t-shirts are all welcome call-backs, as is the delightfully arcane suggestion that, should he ever have finished his novel, rubbish boyfriend Gerry might have been able to make something approaching a living with it. People drink Grolsch in those mysteriously fashionable kilner bottles, go on dates without obsessively checking their iPhones under the table, and after awkward breakups might be missing half the contents of the CD collection but can actually afford to keep renting the flat on their own. Ah, simpler times.
Some of the aesthetic choices even remain actively covetable, which when you consider what passed for fashion in that unfortunate decade is pretty amazing (It helps that Gwyneth’s mostly black wardrobe was almost exclusively by Calvin Klein). In particular I remember knowing deep in my bones that my life would be so much better if only I could replicate Helen’s amazing angled blond pixie ‘do, ideally complete with artfully random twists and party flowers as in the restaurant launch scene. Alas, even at that tender age I was aware that even with a decent dye job my effort would have looked more like I’d been dragged through a hedge backwards, if the hedge had been made out of those violently orange Hawaiian lei garlands Jägermeister shot girls give out in clubs.
I remember on first viewing the ending, with its chillingly silent ambulance rides and flat lining monitors, seemed pretty gritty. Time has dulled it now, of course, even if John Hannah’s weeping still gets me (though it’s suddenly unclear why he would be embracing a supine Helen in an operating theatre, or indeed why he was permitted to watch a serious operation through a gap in the door?). Still, I seem to remember my overriding concern leaving the cinema that first time was what happened to that version of James, who knew love and lost it and then is never shown again, presumably because it would drag down the whole bookending final scene where the two halves of the couple who never knew each other (keep up at the back) meet again by fate in a hospital lift. Ah well, not all loose ends can be tied up, however clever the editing. My 2014 self is content enough to know that somewhere out there in 1997 white stucco land, a leftover John Hannah still mourns, magnificently.
All screen grabs © Miramax Films