Love Actually (2002) Yes, Actually, Love Actually!
For many years, five in fact, I’ve thought about writing a review of Love Actually, one of my favorite Christmas films and romantic comedies, but I wasn’t sure what really to say about the film. This year, I’m trying to take the spirit of the season more into my heart. Working in retail as I do by day, it can take the Christmas spirit right out of you, and gentle solaces in films like Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Silent Night Deadly Night can be the thing that puts it back in. While I wouldn’t add Love Actually to the vaunted status of those films, there’s something sweet and romantic about Richard Curtis’ film that appeals to the humanist in me during a season that is dominated by religious imagery. There’s no doubt that it is a bloated and flawed film that both exploits the viewers emotions and dabbles in cliché however I forgive it its trespasses. After all Christmas is the time to tell the truth, and the truth is that I love Love Actually.
It would take more time than I want to spend to write a full synopsis of the film as it concerns ten separate love stories that intersect and overlap over the month leading up to Christmas. As you can see by the chart after the jump, it could be quite confusing, but with a two and half hour running time, there’s plenty of space to get to know everyone. However there are still relationships and minor notes that I have picked up even after many viewings over the years. So I’m going to count off a few of the stories by their importance to me in the film.
1. Billy and Joe (Bill Nighy and Gregor Fisher) There really wouldn’t be a film without these two. While theirs is the only story that is self contained and doesn’t directly overlap with any of the other characters, it both sets the tone and becomes a thread throughout the entire film. So central is their storyline, it only goes to illustrate my longtime thinking about Love Actually. It’s not really a “chick flick” as many would think, but more of a “bromance”. Certainly during Billy’s rise to the top of the pops with his single “Christmas is Everywhere” (The song “Love is Everywhere” had been a hit in the UK when it was featured in Curtis’ Four Weddings and a Funeral.), the central “love” story becomes about two friends. Like almost all of the other scenarios, the love story is an idealized male romantic fantasy of love. While alone in his rock star world, Billy still had Joe, a best friend and confidant, to stick by his side.
2. Jamie and Aurelia (Colin Firth and Lucia Moniz) Years before Firth spun stuttering into motion picture gold, he appeared in this minor, but memorable storyline about a writer who falls in love with his housekeeper who doesn’t speak English. He learns Portuguese and over Christmas goes to find her. This is the segment that will always tug at my heartstrings. Not only are the character’s interactions in languages unknown to each other entertaining, they set in motion an unexpectedly sweet tale. Much of this is the performances of both actors, but as I mentioned earlier, it seems like a daydream that I would have had in my youth, a romantic fantasy with an entirely male slant to it. Aurelia is portrayed as strong willed and interesting, but her love is not the focus of the story.
3. The Prime Minister and Natalie (Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon) In arguably the films cutest segment, the newly elected PM falls for “chubby girl” Natalie and goes to find her on Christmas Eve. (Seeing a trend here?) Hugh Grant, still in command of all the pausing charms he showed off in Curtis’ Four Weddings, delivers some of the best jokes in the film, and Ms. McCutcheon is by far the most fetching woman in the film for my dollar. The highlight of their story line comes when the visiting American president, played by Billy Bob Thornton, makes a pass at Natalie that almost puts a kibosh on love. Naturally Christmas and love win, and their resolution, being revealed kissing during the finale of an elementary school play, is the start of a great resolution for Love Actually.
4. Peter, Mark, and Juliet (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Andrew Lincoln, Keira Knightley) I might have well left out Mr. Ejiofor, but as this is one of the film’s two love triangles, I thought it best to give him some credit. The real story here is his character’s best friend who is in love with his new bride. Lincoln has to straddle a line here between sweet and creepy, but he does it well. Some set decorator snuck in a nod to Lincoln's stalkerish behavior of only shooting video of Knightley’s character at her wedding ith a copy of Rear Window prominently on the shelf in his apartment when she comes to look at his footage. Of course this was years before Lincoln became an American law enforcement officer caught up in the undead apocalypse, and while he doesn't land Knightly (instead melding Say Anything and Bob Dylan’s clip for Subterranean Homesick Blues to deliver a message of unrequited love), he sure can blow some zombies away.
5. Harry, Karen, and Mia (Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, and Heike Makatsch)/ Sarah and Karl (Laura Linney and Rodrigo Santoro) I lump these two relationship storylines as they overlap a bit (Harry is Sarah’s boss), but more importantly because they showcase the two most tragic storylines in film. Perhaps not coincidentally, they are the main storylines that find women as their linchpin. Karen and Harry have clearly been married for a while, but when Mia, who dresses as a devil for the office Christmas party (did she not get the memo on which holiday it was?), puts the move on Harry, a misplaced Christmas gift leads to marital tension. Sarah can’t even get past anything but tension. Her special needs brother is in need of her constant contact, or so she thinks, to the detriment of a budding relationship with the longtime object of her affections, Karl. Linney’s storyline is perhaps the most tragic in the film. She wants love, but she is also a prisoner of another kind of deeper love. After Harry’s dalliance, Karen is left to figure out where they fit together anymore, and love of family again comes first.
The remaining story lines are all equally entertaining. Colin (Kris Marshall) going to America to wield his “cute accent” to land babes (one of which is a pre-Mad Men January Jones, AMC represent in Love Actually), John and Judy (The Office,and future Bilbo Baggins, Martin Freeman and Johanna Page) as naked stand ins who meet cute, and Daniel and Sam (Liam Neeson and Thomas Sangster) as a recently widowed father and stepson learning about love all provide moments, but sometimes they are moments where I patiently wait for other preferable stories. The naked stand ins, as well as Linney in her story line provide for more nudity than I would normally expect in a rom com, and this also leads me further to believe that the entire film is slanted toward a male audience.
Now anyone who is a reader of the LBL knows that I can watch some hardcore stuff with the best of them, but sometimes I like pure escapist fantasy that has the ability to move me in some way. British journalist Will Self said Love Actually was 'the most grotesque and sick manipulation of a cinema audience's feelings that I've ever seen since Leni von [sic] Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will', and I can’t help but agree. I also can’t help but love the film for all its button pushing, emotion twisting, and tear jerking qualities. When I mentioned earlier that the film is overlong, it is, but it also gives the entire movie the quality of an epic cinematic poem to on screen love. Curtis took everything that had been good about classic romantic films and tried to put it all up there on the screen. The result is uneven, but the backdrop of Christmas brings the extra layer of goodwill Love Actually needs to survive the rocky moments. So, this once, forgive me the trespass of loving a bubblegum film that gives me cheap laughs, a few smiles, and the occasional good weep, but I do, and that’s the truth for this Christmas.