A decade after its release, Love Actually is under attack. The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr posted a lengthy takedown of the movie last Friday, eliciting glee from the film’s many haters and only sheepish defiance from its fans. His criticisms: the movie focuses too much on physical attraction; it portrays relationships as grand gestures and crushes, rather than timeworn care and hard work; it suggests love can’t overcome obstacles. Basically, Orr says, the movie offers a lusty, shallow, wimpy version of love.
I disagree, and I’ve been plotting my response to Orr’s post for a while. At approximately 4:33 p.m. on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, virtually all work at our D.C. office halted when staffers circled around me and Orr, Fight Club style, as we loudly debated the movie’s merits. And since The Atlantic is “of no party or clique,” there’s room for more than one Love Actually opinion on this website.
I admire the bravery that’s needed to declare oneself the enemy of Christmas, Colin Firth, and crushes nurtured by 11-year-old kids, and it would be cowardly to hide behind the movie’s cute-factor in mounting my defense. There’s a real argument to be made on the film’s behalf: Love Actually shows awkward, charming, complicated entanglements that can be very instructive in thinking about love.
To help explain why, I hereby declare my second in this duel: C.S. Lewis. Although a mid-century Christian apologist might seem like an bizarre choice for back-up in a battle about a romantic comedy, his book The Four Loves provides a helpful framework for examining the big question Love Actually asks: What is love, actually?
Well, for starters, it’s a lot more than romance. Some of the movie’s most “aww!”-inducing moments do involve big, dramatic declarations of the heart (more on that later), but the most interesting of the movie’s nine or 10 subplots are those that don’t quite fit the expected rom-com mold. That’s because they’re not romantic at all: They’re versions of the first two kinds of love Lewis writes about, affection and friendship.
Take, for example, the lovely Laura Linney, who plays a graphic designer who can’t consummate her crush on her co-worker, Carl, because she feels obligated to spend her emotional energy caring for her mentally ill brother. Orr doesn’t buy it, writing, “It’s not as though she’s caring for her disabled brother full-time: He’s in a state facility! But by the molehills-to-mountains calculus of Love Actually, Linney appears doomed to an early spinsterhood.”
That misses the point of this subplot: Sometimes, non-romantic relationships are more important than romantic ones, even if that fact can be frustrating and heartbreaking. Linney may be scared and shy and slightly awkward, which are all understandable, true-to-life explanations for why she’s not getting any with Carl, but she’s also emotionally preoccupied. For Linney, her affection for her brother has displaced the role of eros, or romantic, sexual love, in her life.
“Affection … is the humblest love,” Lewis writes. “People can be proud of being ‘in love,’ or of friendship. Affection is modest—even furtive and shame-faced.” Linney captures this perfectly: She’s embarrassed and sad about getting in her own way with Carl, indulging a quick cubicle cry when Carl wishes her only a brief good night at work after their failed post-Christmas-party hook-up.
But her relationship with her brother is also one of great need. Since their parents have passed away, she feels he must be her emotional priority, and in some ways, she uses him to hide her own feelings of shyness and dissatisfaction with her love life. Lewis writes that this is an important component of affection: “It is a need-love, but what it needs is to give. It is a gift-love, but it needs to be needed.”
Need is also an important part of the relationship between Liam Neeson and Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who play a recent widower and stepson dealing with loss. Neeson is unsure of how to be a father to Brodie-Sangster after the death of the child’s mother. “The problem is, it was his mom who always used to talk to him,” Neeson says. “This whole stepfather thing seems suddenly to somehow matter in a way that it never did before.” When Brodie-Sangster confesses that he’s despairing about a crush on Joanna, “the coolest girl in school,” the two find something to work on together, a temporary distraction from grief. “Her name’s Joanna?” Neeson asks. “Yeah, I know, same as mom,” Brodie-Sangster answers.
The movie’s most heartbreaking plotline shows how affection can become the substance of marriage over time—and how, sometimes, that’s not enough. Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson play a husband and wife with a friendly, banter-filled domestic routine: raising kids, shopping for presents, crafting ridiculous papier-mâché lobster costumes for their daughter’s Christmas nativity play (“There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?” Thompson asks. “Duh,” her daughter replies). Thompson clearly feels that she has become less sexy as she has aged: At one point, she remarks that her skirt size makes her look like Pavarotti, and her husband fails to take the compliment cue when he replies, “Pavorotti dresses very well.”
Meanwhile, at work, Rickman’s sexually aggressive secretary is pursuing him, and he gives in a little, buying her an expensive gold necklace (while his wife gets only a Joni Mitchell CD). Thompson finds out and confronts him in a devastating scene. “What would you do if you were in my position?” she asks. “Would you stay, knowing life would always be a little bit worse? …You’ve made a fool out of me. You’ve made the life I lead foolish, too.”
Orr praises this scene but condemns the movie for failing to supply an adequate resolution to their story. But again, this criticism is besides the point: Although this incident might not be fully realized infidelity, it represents the unhappiness hiding beneath a friendship-style marriage. We can’t be sure what to make of Rickman and Thompson’s final conversation at the end of the movie, when she greets him coldly at the airport after he returns from a trip, but that uncertainty seems just as plausible as a scene where we find out that Thompson has made a definitive choice would have been. “Nearly all the characteristics of this love are ambivalent,” Lewis writes. Especially in the context of marriage, the idea of definitively “overcoming an obstacle” seems much less authentic than “just trying to figure it out,” muddling through the infinite composite of good moments and bad moments of a life lived together. Ambivalence is appropriate: Thompson can love her husband and feel hurt by him at the same time.
Then there’s the complication of Lewis’s second kind of love: friendship. Although we don’t know much about the longtime friendship between two thirtysomethings played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Andrew Lincoln, we do know that Lincoln’s character has long been in love with Ejiofor’s new wife, played by Keira Knightley.
In most romantic comedies, there would be no space for a plot line sympathetic to a guy who wants to get it with his best friend’s brand-new wife, but that’s why this story is so charming—and challenging. Love does not always or even usually happen in convenient or symmetrical ways, and that’s painful: We see Lincoln’s character literally spin in circles outside of his apartment, trying to decide what to do after Knightley finds out how he feels about her. Ultimately, he decides to be honest, but in a non-predatory way: He confesses that he cares about her but asks for nothing in return. For some, this may seem morally messy, made even worse when Knightley runs after him to give him a kiss. But “not all kisses between lovers are lovers’ kisses,” Lewis writes. With that kiss, Knightley recognizes how human it is to love someone but not be loved back in the same way, but both she and Lincoln seem to understand that having feelings for someone doesn’t make it right to break up a marriage or destroy a friendship.