What's the big deal?
Love Actually is a festive romantic comedy film released in 2003 and was both written and directed by Richard Curtis. The film is an examination of love in all its forms and features a number of separate stories that gradually intertwine over the Christmas period. The film's ensemble cast includes Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Laura Linney, Liam Neeson, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy and Rowan Atkinson. Despite a fairly mixed response from critics, the film proved hugely popular with audiences with global takings of $246 million and the film has since become a cult hit at Christmas. In fact, the film has proven so popular with audiences that Curtis filmed a short follow-up film in 2017 to help raise money for Comic Relief.
What's it about, actually?
The film opens with a monologue by David, the newly elected British Prime Minister, who ruminates on the nature of love while considering the arrivals at Heathrow Airport. While David himself struggles with his feelings for his junior staff member Natalie behind the famous black door in Downing Street, his sister Karen finds herself upset when her husband Harry appears to be having an affair with his secretary Mia. Karen's friend Daniel, however, is still mourning the death of his wife while trying to help his stepson Sam understand his feelings toward his school colleague Joanna.
As the cheesy sounds of faded rock-star Billy Mack trying to get the coveted Christmas number one hit echoes from the radio, writer Jamie discovers that his girlfriend is cheating on him and retreats to France in order to recover. Juliet and Peter get married but Juliet is unaware that their best man Mark is hopelessly in love with her. While body extras John and Judy slowly fall for each other despite shooting endless sex scenes, Sarah finds her budding romance with work colleague Karl is clashing with her family bonds with her mentally ill brother Michael. Seems like love really is all around.
Release Date (UK)
21st November, 2003
Comedy, Drama, Festive, Romance
What's to like?
For all its sugary fluffiness, Love Actually is a surprisingly in-depth and exhaustive look at all things romantic. The agony and the ecstasy alongside each other makes for an experience that makes you holder your loved ones ever closer. Thanks to the water-tight cast, the film is a big bundle of feels that takes you on a roller-coaster of emotions. From the sheer unadulterated joy of Sarah after her first kiss with her hunky colleague to the heart-breaking tragedy of Karen discovering the truth about her duplicitous husband, the film doesn't hold back and is unashamedly emotive.
The film's mix of long-time Curtis collaborators, unexpected co-stars and undiscovered foreign actors makes the film more fun than you might imagine as you simply don't know who will pop up next. The biggest surprise is McCutcheon who most UK viewers will remember from Cockney soap opera EastEnders and fleeting success as a pop singer. But her heavily-accented appearance is perfectly suited opposite Grant's stuffy politician and hers is one of many roles you suspect were tailored to suit whomever was cast. Like other Curtis films like Four Weddings And A Funeral and The Boat That Rocked, the soundtrack is also first-class and he also makes the most of shooting in London again, like he did in Notting Hill. The capital tends to look awesome most of the time (but then again, I'm biased - lived there for a number of years) but Curtis has an uncanny ability to make the city look as magical as the stories told here.
- The lake where Colin Firth and Lúcia Moniz go swimming was only eighteen inches deep, meaning both actors were on their knees pretending to swim. It was also swarming with mosquitoes, forcing Firth to seek treatment after being bitten on the elbow.
- The airport footage of people meeting each other at the beginning and end of the film was real. Curtis had a crew shooting at Heathrow for a week and whenever they filmed something suitable, they would ask the people involved for their permission to include it in the film.
- Sangster, who was just 13 during filming, would be cast as a thirteen year old in 2013 when he was cast in Game Of Thrones. Incidentally, Sangster was only five years younger than Knightley despite appearances.
- The video for Billy Mack's Christmas Is All Around is an obvious imitation of a number of videos by Robert Palmer, particularly Addicted To Love. The song was actually released and reached number 26 in the UK chart, not number 1. Incidentally, Billy Mack's story is the only one not to directly interact with any other.
What's not to like?
The problem with Love Actually can be boiled down to just a single word: taste. While I've no doubt that many people enjoy the movie's candy floss sweetness and rom-com cliché checklist, I wanted the movie to be more substantial and less ambitious. I personally feel that the film has far too many characters and stories to remain coherent (the porn actors looking for genuine affection didn't do much for me and feel out-of-place in Curtis' winter wonderland) and I reckon the film would have worked just as well if it were only dealing with Grant's flummoxed Prime Minister and Thompson's scorned woman. Did the film really benefit from filler stories like goofy Colin (Kris Marshall) getting his sexual fantasies granted in America?
Not only are there too many stories but the ones that are there don't necessarily get told satisfactorily. The film makes no attempt to shy away from showing the darker side of attraction, whether its the introduction of Daniel at his wife's funeral or the gut-wrenching anger and distress the moment Karen realises her husband is no longer hers. Yet somehow, all these stories seem to have a happy ending as though sprinkled with Santa's magic fairy dust. As much as I admire the film's skill at pulling your heartstrings, I can't respect it for forcing poorly written conclusions and happy endings on its audience. Just because it's Christmas doesn't mean every present is exactly what you wanted.
Should I actually watch it?
I can't deny that the film won't put a smile on your face but Love Actually is probably the most complete film about love I've seen. It won't be to everybody's taste but for a throwaway movie, the film's impressive cast, soundtrack and Curtis' style of story-telling makes this perfect for a family viewing at Christmas - assuming you haven't bought your secretary a necklace and your wife a Joni Mitchell CD. Hold your loved ones a little tighter and enjoy this excessively sweet, insubstantial and fun frolic into rom-com cliché.
Great For: Christmas, London residents, girls' night in
Not So Great For: philanderers, critics, anyone expecting Curtis to abandon the rom-com
What else should I watch?
While being extremely proficient and prolific as a writer, Curtis has only sat in the directors chair on two other occasions. The Boat That Rocked (known in the US as Pirate Radio) is a wacky comedy set on a pirate radio station operating on a ship in the 1960's, very much inspired by the real-life Radio Caroline, and features another ensemble cast and another cracking soundtrack. But while that film toned down the rom-com elements, Curtis thoroughly embraced the genre once again in 2013 with About Time. Featuring Domhnall Gleeson as a young man utilising time travel to improve his love life, the uneven film was riddled with plot holes and Curtis himself claimed that it might be his last time he acts as a director.
Curtis' future in film might well rest on his extensive writing career, given the success he's enjoyed with projects like Four Weddings And A Funeral, Bridget Jones' Diary and the recent sequel to Mamma Mia!, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. But perhaps Curtis' greatest achievement was the co-founding of Comic Relief, a charity which has raised over £1 billion for poverty relief in Africa and the UK - without question, something far more worthwhile than Bean.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox