I confess that it wasn’t until recently that I understood the degree to which Love Actually, the 2003 romantic comedy by writer/director Richard Curtis, had been gradually reevaluated and granted the status of a “classic” holiday film. For me, the news came by way of a November Vulture piece that began, “It might be hard to recall, but the film that has now become a beloved holiday classic was one that initially received a flurry of mixed reviews.”
My own review was among several cited. I’ve of course always known that my take on Love Actually was more unforgiving than most. But beloved holiday classic? Really?
Well yes, evidently. Over the course of several conversations with friends and colleagues, some of them conducted with good cheer but at high volume—I refer interested parties to the Twitter feeds of Atlantic employees on the afternoon of November 20th—it was confirmed to me that a considerable number of people not only consider Love Actually a classic, but go so far as to watch the movie annually as a holiday tradition.
Which is—and please believe that I am being as diplomatic as I can—utterly insane. Begin with the obvious: Love Actually is not, in fact, a holiday-season movie in any meaningful sense. Yes, it takes place in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and it features a Sisyphean parade of pop Yuletide ditties. But this is not a movie about peace on Earth and good will toward men (or, for that matter, about what toys Santa will be placing under the tree). Insofar as Love Actually conveys the spirit of any holiday, that holiday is Valentine’s Day—and, indeed, the film served as a model for a few ensemble romantic comedies (He’s Just Not That Into You, Valentine’s Day) that have since been associated with that date.
So take the film on its own titular terms. What does Love Actually tell us about love, actually? Well, I think it tells us a number of things, most of them wrong and a few of them appalling. Now, anyone who goes to the cineplex with any regularity knows that the last decade has seen more than its share of bad romantic comedies. But Love Actually is exceptional in that it is not merely, like so many other entries in the genre, unromantic. Rather, it is emphatically, almost shockingly, anti-romantic.
I first made this case in my original review almost a decade ago, and those who want to get a sense of where I’m headed are welcome to have a look. But in light of the film’s 10th anniversary, I wanted to delve a little deeper. So I watched Love Actually again, and—to my surprise—I found it even more hostile to the concept of romance than I’d remembered.
For those in need of a plot refresher, the movie portrays, by my count, nine principal relationships: between the British Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) and a young member of his household staff (Martine McCutcheon); between a crime novelist (Colin Firth) and his Portuguese maid (Lúcia Moniz); between a graphic designer (Laura Linney) and the colleague (Rodrigo Santoro) on whom she’s had a longstanding crush; between a husband (Alan Rickman) and wife (Emma Thompson) stuck in a state of marital ennui; between a widower (Liam Neeson) and his lovesick stepson (Thomas Brodie-Sangster); between a new bride (Keira Knightley) and her husband’s best friend (Andrew Lincoln); between an aging rocker (Bill Nighy) and his manager (Gregor Fisher); between two body doubles (Martin Freeman and Joanna Page) simulating sex acts on a movie set; and between a blundering British lothario (Kris Marshall) and an escalatingly implausible series of American dream girls. There are other subsidiary relationships, but they serve primarily as foils (Rickman’s sexually predatory assistant; Linney’s needy, institutionalized brother), or to tie the major subplots together.
Let’s begin by stating the obvious: It’s a tremendous cast. (Chiwetel Ejiofor is even tucked in there somewhere.) And a few of the subplots, I will grant, work pretty well, in particular—and no, I don’t think this a coincidence—the nonromantic ones. Neeson and Brodie-Sangster (who was destined for subsequent greatness as the voice of Ferb and as Jojen Reed on Game of Thrones) are touching as the boys trying to put their lives back together after the death of their beloved wife/mom. And Nighy is, as always, a delight. (In my repressive society, every movie produced would be required to provide a role for Bill Nighy.) I will point out, though, that the latter plot—in which Nighy campaigns to get his crass Christmas hit to the top of the pop charts—doesn’t really have anything to do with his platonic “love” for his manager, an idea that is pretty clearly tacked on at the end to make that story fit the film’s larger framework.
Of the movie’s seven romantic plotlines, too, I think one is rather endearing. Having Martin Freeman and Joanna Page discover they're attracted to one another in the midst of pretty much the least romantic activity possible—being ordered into a variety of rushed, pseudo-erotic poses on a movie set—is a clever conceit, and tidily executed.
As for the rest of the film—which is to say, the bulk of the film—I think it offers up at least three disturbing lessons about love. First, that love is overwhelmingly a product of physical attraction and requires virtually no verbal communication or intellectual/emotional affinity of any kind. Second, that the principal barrier to consummating a relationship is mustering the nerve to say “I love you”—preferably with some grand gesture—and that once you manage that, you’re basically on the fast track to nuptial bliss. And third, that any actual obstacle to romantic fulfillment, however surmountable, is not worth the effort it would require to overcome.
Begin with the elevation of physical attraction over any of the other factors typically associated with romantic compatibility: similar likes and dislikes, overlapping senses of humor, shared values, what have you. Grant falls in love with McCutcheon the first time he speaks with her—“Get a grip,” he chides himself moments afterward—when essentially the only thing he knows about her is that she accidentally uses profanity a lot. (Charming? Sure. Evidence of a soul mate? Unlikely.) Firth and Moniz, meanwhile, fall in love despite not sharing a word of language in common. Moreover, the movie telegraphs very clearly that the moment when Firth really falls for Moniz is when he watches her strip down to her underwear.
The pattern is repeated throughout the film. Brodie-Sangster is in love with a beautiful, popular girl at school with whom he’s never spoken. Neeson recognizes that a ray of sunshine may enter his entombed love life the instant he meets a mom who looks exactly like (i.e., is played by) Claudia Schiffer. We can assume, I suppose, that Linney and Santoro have had some conversations—they do work in the same office, after all—but the film doesn’t bother to show them having any. All we know about him is that she thinks he’s “too good for her” and, later, that he has washboard abs. The storyline regarding Marshall’s quest for American babes is played as a gag, of course: dorky British guy is convinced that his accent will prove irresistible to super-hotties in Wisconsin—and, lo and behold, he’s right! But the plotline’s comically exaggerated infatuation with physical attraction is actually not very far out of keeping with the rest of the film.