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.