14 May 2022
Though it hit Netflix only this year, rom-com phenomenon Love Actually is approaching its twenty-year anniversary. For those who haven’t seen the film- how? And for the other 99.9 per cent, what better excuse to revisit this modern classic. So pour yourself an eggnog, throw on your suavest Christmas sweater, and prepare to cringe through some of the most questionable grand “romantic” gestures of the pre-#MeToo era. It’s Christmas somewhere, right?
Director Richard Curtis’s ode to love, joy, and Christmas (not necessarily in that order,) Love Actually shifts between individual storylines of ten tangentially connected characters in the month leading up to Christmas. Don’t worry- the film is nowhere near as depressing and disturbing as similarly structured Oscar winner Crash. Or even worse, Valentine’s Day.
The series of vignettes, varying in tone from sappily heartfelt, to cheekily risqué, to outright emotionally devastating, have little in common beyond their snowy December setting. That, and a vague conviction that “…love, actually, is all around.” I mean, that’s one four letter word the men in this film are after.
Men such as self-effacing middle-aged author (Colin Firth), who falls in “love” with his much younger Portuguese housekeeper, despite the two never having never shared a conversation. Hmmm. Elsewhere, a lonely office worker played by Laura Linney struggles under the weight of a hopelessly unrequited crush and responsibilities caring for her mentally ill older brother. An ageing rockstar stages a comeback with hopes of scoring a number one and perhaps even “a cute bird balancing on [his] balls” by Christmas day.
The film pinballs between these subplots with all the subtly of a kid on a sugar high, inflicting even more emotional whiplash on its audience with the introduction of a recent widower grieving his wife’s untimely death, an adorably precocious ten-year-old pining after his unattainable schoolyard crush, and a stepfather and pre-teen stepson who bond over sexual fantasies involving supermodel Claudia Schiffer. The wildest part? Those last three examples are in the same storyline.
This storytelling approach is, not to put too fine a point on it, utterly batshit. Yet somehow, it worked.
Love Actually went on to gross a staggering $246.8 million worldwide. Critics called it “irresistible,” “bittersweet and hilarious,” and “a romantic comedy masterpiece.” In 2016, it was officially voted Britain’s favourite film of all time.
It’s hard to pinpoint what makes Love Actually so infectious. Certainly its incredible cast, featuring a who’s who of British acting royalty, is partly to thank. (Particular standouts include Dame Emma Thompson, the late great Alan Rickman, honorary Brit Laura Linney and Hugh Grant playing, of all things, the UK Prime Minister.) But the film’s less-famous supporting cast are equally as energetic and charismatic. Above all, everyone involved seems to be having a ball with the OTT material. Even the guy with the dead wife.
And then there’s Curtis’s eminently quotable, crowd-pleasing script. By leaning in to its inherent corniness, Love Actually eventually wears down the most cynical of viewers with a sheer onslaught of cheer and goodwill. (Not charmed by a romantic race to the airport? What if it’s performed by a tow-headed ten-year-old who lisps things like “Let’s go get the shit kicked out of us by love!”)
It’s not all schmaltz over substance though. The rom-com contains a number of genuinely witty subplots- that of Septuagenarian rocker Billy Mack for example, whose (platonic) soulmate turns out to be his overweight manager, for whom he makes the grand romantic gesture to spend Christmas Eve together, rather than partying at Elton John’s. “Now let’s get pissed and watch porn,” Billy cackles.
In slightly more sombre scenes, Emma Thompson just about dares viewers not to tear up watching her silently sob over her husband’s infidelity while their blissfully unaware children play in the next room. Sure, it’s not quite gritty social commentary. But it is a glimpse of the emotionally honest storytelling that sets Richard Curtis apart from his many imitators.
In 2017, the Love Actually cast briefly reunited for a mini-reunion special to raise funds for charity. On the press circuit, one journalist asked if Curtis stood by the original flick’s hopeful message given the destabilising world events since its release.
“Still, every day, people do extraordinary things for people they don’t know, and most people have enough love in their hearts to help,” Curtis replied.
“I’m as optimistic as ever I was about the power of individuals to demonstrate love, both privately and publicly.”
He had a point. Today’s audiences do not, as a rule, demand our entertainment only involve dark and harrowing depictions of real-world socio-political crises. (In fact, one of 2017’s most successful films was the irrepressibly upbeat La La Land.)
But audiences have become slightly more conscious of a film’s problematic subtext than we were twenty-odd years ago.
The definition of crowd-pleasing, Love Actually is in some ways an unlikely offender. Stuffed fit to burst with charm and wholesome fun, Curtis’s cocktail of sharp British humour, crowd-pleasing sentimentality, and an unashamed appreciation of classic rom-com tropes seems almost about sanitised and blandly inoffensive as the holiday season itself.
But like at family Christmas, it’s only a matter of time before the façade of goodwill wears off, and before long everyone’s drunk and screaming about politics. And between multiple slow-mo montages of the Heathrow arrivals gate are a number of subplots more gross and off-putting than a drunk uncle lurking under the mistletoe.
Put simply, Love Actually did not age poorly because society these days is less “loving.” It aged poorly because of its mortifying views on sexual politics, which are so glaringly awful they can’t not be acknowledged.
The most infamous example is a storyline in which a character called Mark, who is secretly in love with his best friend’s fiancé, films this woman without her knowledge or consent, keeps the footage for, ahem, “private viewings,” and finally shows up on her doorstep unannounced (her husband in the next room) to pledge his undying devotion “without hope or agenda.”
And sure, Mark’s a certified creep. But the scene seems downright charming in the context of:
- * A woman portrayed as a she-devil (literally- she’s costumed in red lingerie and devil horns) for sleeping with her BOSS, aka the party with all of the power in the relationship;
- * Another boss and his female subordinate getting together, only this dalliance takes place in the Prime Minister’s office, and finally;
- * Said Prime Minister demoting this employee after witnessing her receive unwanted sexual attention from the US President. (And to think this film was pre-Trump!)
If that’s love, actually, I think I’ll stay single.
For some viewers, the film’s genuinely concerning subtext will turn the sugary-sweetness of Love Actually to a bitter aftertaste. But others might choose to enjoy it as intended- lightweight escapism to an alternate universe where December never ends and romantic overtures are always, always appropriate. As long as you look like Colin Firth.
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