Essays · Movies

An Apparently Necessary Defense of ‘Love Actually’

On the 10th anniversary of its release, we professed our love for Richard Curtis’ holiday-themed rom-com.
To Me Love Actually
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on December 11th, 2013

I’m one of the insane who watches Love Actually every year around Christmastime. Richard Curtis’ 10-year-old flick has lost none of its charm on repeat viewings, the laughs all still land and it makes a hell of a double feature with Die Hard. So naturally, I think Christopher Orr is dead wrong about it.

Up until four days ago, I had no idea there were people that hated the ensemble romantic comedy. In the grand sense that not everything is for everyone, sure, of course, there were going to be people that didn’t care for it, but my eyes were opened to just how deep the irritation goes when Orr lambasted it as the least romantic movie of all time. I’m assuming Saw and Ichi the Killer weren’t up for consideration, but even strictly within the genre (and ignoring the trolling headline of the piece), it’s a pretty outrageous claim. It’s backed up by Orr’s typical flourish and intellect, but it’s a rare case where he seems to be wandering around a large number of trees wondering where the power plant is.

As it turns out, Love Actually needs a defense.

Our defense of Love Actually:

Jumping into the ocean

Orr’s central issue is that the film is uninterested in showing the work of love. Everything is on the surface. Everything is based on looks. Eternal happiness is either incredibly simple or impossibly difficult. He also acknowledges that the hurdle in most everyone’s way is the act of professing your love.

That’s a pretty big challenge on its own (because love, and specifically admitting love, changes things), but the characters aren’t facing an Aw-Shucks, dirt-kicking kind of bashfulness (except for one). Most are facing an internal struggle against what they perceive to be walls blocking their path to happiness, and the lesson of most of the vignettes is that those walls are imaginary.

For The Prime Minister (Hugh Grant), it’s the problem of being attracted to a subordinate; for Sarah (Laura Linney), it’s self-doubt and a deep family commitment that keep her from chasing her work crush; for Mark (Andrew Lincoln), it’s that the woman he’s fallen for is his best friend’s bride; for John (Martin Freeman), it’s getting over his Aw-Shucks bashfulness to ask the woman with whom he’s simulating sex out for tea; for Harry (Alan Rickman), it’s an aggressively horny temptation pulling him from a concrete marriage to Karen (Emma Thompson); for Jamie (Colin Firth), it’s the sting of being cheated on and the inability to speak Portuguese.

Are all of these problems profound? No. Are some of them played (hilariously) for laughs? Yes. Are they all real obstacles to professing your attraction (or maintaining your fidelity)? Absolutely.

The movie shows love as an antidote to normal life. It isn’t merely the magnetism of bursting hormones; it’s about finding a drastic and significant change to what’s going on currently, whether that means moving 5,000 miles away from home, learning a new language, jumping into a freezing lake to save someone else’s writing, being appallingly blunt as anti-promotion for your shitty Christmas song, or altering your country’s foreign policy in response to bullying sexual harassment. It’s about taking the plunge. In the case of Daniel (Liam Neeson) and his young step-son Sam (Thomas Sangster), it’s a matter of being shoved into the ocean by losing a wife and mother to prolonged illness. In every case, though, the person is searching for something, and they find it in another person.

That’s an overwhelming idea that’s explored in pretty much all romantic comedies, and Curtis delivers several doses of the distilled version to great effect, but the relationships aren’t purely about physicality.

For author Jamie and Aurelia (Lucia Moniz), the initial car ride attraction is silly and mild, but she shows her hand by diving into the lake to save the work that she let the wind carry away. Admittedly the camera lingers eye-rollingly too long on her body, but the moment places her in a new light in more ways than just the physical. Then, through dramatic irony, we get to see how truly compatible Aurelia and Jamie are even if they can only feel it. But in all of the successful relationships of the film, the coupling is ignited when someone proves – through action – that they care.

For The Prime Minister and Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), the push beyond initial attraction comes when he asks about her life, she explains that she’s newly single from a terrible boyfriend and he jokes that he could easily have the ex killed. He’s drawn to her as a counterpoint to the proper people around him when she curses egregiously during their meeting, he expresses clearly his flirtation, and he’s cooked. Destined to push her away to protect himself or crash into her full speed.

Speaking of which, the film also does a tremendous job of weaving each story into the others beyond simply playing “Christmas Is All Around” on radios and TVs near the other love birds. The entire ensemble is effectively an extended circle of friends of friends (who would be surprised by how low their Bacon Number to the Prime Minister is), but there’s also a matter of thematically tying moments together.

The best example is the juxtaposition of the wedding video and the Prime Minister’s problem. When Juliet (Keira Knightley) figures out that Mark’s wedding footage is singularly focused on her, she puzzles out his affection, and he explains that his coldness toward her was always a self-preservation tool. That scene is directly followed by a parallel in the Prime Minister asking for Natalie to be reassigned to spare him the agony of seeing the woman he likes (but believes he can’t have) every day.

Then there’s Harry convincing Sarah to take the plunge while essentially advising his adultery-minded self to do the same, several characters dancing/jumping off stairs/seizing in response to their love-based joy, the airport elements, and more.

The script is labyrinthine, and the amount of stories limits how much of the growth we get to see, but almost every case involves a developing friendship that — when someone utters the L-word finally — turns into something more. That includes the non-romantic elements as well, particularly Daniel who exclaims early on that the distance created by his status as step-father has been brought into stunning focus after his wife’s death. She was the one who dealt with their son Sam’s problems, so now Daniel has to learn to swim quickly. Yet again, theirs is a relationship that blossoms when one of them opens up about being in love; Daniel is able to bond with Sam’s schoolboy crush on the most popular girl in school.

We don’t know a lot about the characters, no, but what makes the movie work where its unintentional offspring Valentine’s Daya movie truly worthy of bile — fails is that the writing is tight enough to paint each relationship in watercolors. There’s absolutely a physical element (these are beautiful professional actors we’re dealing with), but everyone is also witty and well-spoken, interesting, and engaging. Beyond the sexual chemistry, it’s easy to see why these people are attractive. The script shapes a cast of genuinely decent people showing their best qualities and embarrassing themselves thoroughly.

The writing is also wickedly smart on the comedy front, finding a balance between easy pathos and bone-dry absurdity (“There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?”). Without that avalanche of excellent lines, it’s easy to see how the movie would be a crass cash-in on easy romance.

In a way, I’ve always thought of the movie as extending the Meet Cute, and I’ll admit there’s a kind of magic trick involved with that. Curtis doesn’t fill in the blanks or show couples doing the hard work of the relationship, but every character is written as instantly engaging, and every actor pulls focus so strongly that it’s easy to forget that there was nothing in the hat right before the rabbit popped out.

Down with love

On the flipside, Orr’s complaint extends to the failed relationships as proof that love is displayed as being impossible. That’s an easy read considering so much of the film is concerned with love at first sight and the fairytale it produces, but the failed relationships have a stronger bite that is used to profess different kinds of love.

Sarah, who is the only female character struggling to pursue her crush, is a lonely fish out of water who is essentially waiting for a handsome idiot named Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) to act on his knowledge that she likes him. When he finally asks her to dance, they share the cliche of a fast song being cut short in favor of a slow jam (worst DJ ever?), and a physical connection is made. They take it back to her place where she reveals that the multitude of phone calls she receives are from her mentally challenged brother — a needy individual who derails her night of passion.

Whereas Orr sees it as an inconvenience that’s baffling in its destruction of a romantic possibility for all time, I always read Sarah’s story as 1) a signal that Karl is a bit of a douchebag who is unworthy of her love (to mirror her belief that things are the other way around) and 2) a strengthening arc between her and her brother (him trying to hit her is challenging, him hugging her gets me every time). There’s nothing that says Karl can’t try again, but there will always be another man in her life, and if he really wants to make something happen, he’ll need to come up with something better than “maybe just don’t answer it?”. What he chooses, doesn’t matter, because the story itself is more about how amazing Sarah is than whether she will end up with the beautiful co-worker.

Even stronger is the moment where Karen unwraps the Christmas gift from her husband to find that he’s bought her a thoughtful present. . . that isn’t the golden necklace she found in his jacket. Watching Emma Thompson compose herself, break down with gusto behind a closed bedroom door and then return with a brave smile for the children is a towering sequence made possible by Thompson’s acting acumen and the script’s ability to swing the pendulum from the cartoonishly ridiculous to the intimately poignant.

For Sarah it’s love for her sibling (and herself), for Karen it’s love for her children and a question mark floating over how sustainable love actually is after decades of wear and tear. It’s never about love being impossible.

Yes, Virginia, it’s a Christmas movie

It seems bizarre to quibble about what people choose to watch around holidays or whether those films are seasonally appropriate. If you watch Saving Private Ryan every St. Patrick’s Day or The Bird Cage every Winter Solstice, who really cares?

Even considering that freedom, Love Actually is still very much a Christmas movie. Orr doesn’t see it, but there’s one simple question that cements it: is there any other time of year that it could have taken place?

Of course not. No other holiday so universally draws friends, family, and co-workers together in the same way or lasts inexplicably for an entire month. It may not have peace on earth or Santa showing up to give everyone Hokey Pokey Elmos (it was 2003, people), but it seems awfully closed-off to think a “Christmas movie” has to feature those specific elements. Love Actually is primarily a romance (and to think romance is solely relegated to Valentine’s Day is equally bizarre), but it also puts different kinds of love on display, uses Christmastime standards as plot devices, and even offers a not-at-all-annoying shitty Christmas song from naked Bill Nighy. All that’s missing is a lame mistletoe gag. Love Actually is thoroughly embedded in the holiday.

What’s more, don’t we have enough Christmas movies featuring Santa anyway? The answer is yes.

Wrapping up with a cinnamon stick

Is Love Actually a surface level movie? The open-ended, gaps-unfilled nature allows for it, but that’s not a consistent reading. The movie definitely speaks specifically to how we deal with initial attraction as it either festers or is allowed to blossom, showing us a lot of people avoiding the leap and how that exacerbates their situation further. It creates comedy by placing people in situations where they think they’re making fools of themselves when they’re, in fact, endearing themselves to the person they like. It starts from a position that true, inexplicable, fall-on-your-face love is real – so if you can’t buy that in bulk, you’re going to be beyond the movie’s reach.

After all, it’s about risking getting the shit kicked out of you by love and learning that it, actually, is all around you.

And if nothing else convinces you of the movie’s brilliance, here are three words that should: Spider-man King Wenceslas.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.