12th December: Love Actually

Image: Universal Pictures

Year: 2003

Director: Richard Curtis

Writer: Richard Curtis

Starring: Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Martine McCutcheon, Bill Nighy, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Colin Firth, Andrew Lincoln, Keira Knightley, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Gregor Fisher, Kris Marshall, Martin Freeman, Joanna Page, Heika Makatsch

May contain spoilers.

Oh boy, I feel like there’s the potential to upset a lot of people with this one. Critically mixed to say the least (some really do hate it), Love Actually is nevertheless adored by so many people and, I imagine, takes top spot for several in their Christmas viewing. It is a film I almost wilfully want to dislike; to enjoy it seems near unfashionable, betraying a like of schmaltzy Christmas bollocks.

Yet I love this schmaltzy Christmas bollocks. A large chunk of it anyway. Love Actually has its problems, without a doubt, but there is just something so lovable about it that I never tire of watching it around this time of year. It is by far the Christmas film I have seen the most, and almost transcends the genre, acting really as a super-rom-com that happens to be set at Christmas. Although, it does make a pretty decent job of passing the criteria I set out in the Die Hard entry.

The main problem I have with the film is its portmanteau structure. I have explained on several occasions before how frustrating I find a romance that does not properly develop its characters. Doing this leaves the romance hollow and dull, and the end result is that I couldn’t care less about it. By its very nature, Love Actually doesn’t really have time to give us proper insights into these relationships in any great detail. They are not deeply felt romances that will touch our hearts and alter our souls, like a Portrait of a Lady on Fire for example.

Nor do they need to be, though. Curtis’ miraculous trick here (something the similarly-structured Valentine’s Day failed at) is to make every strand of his story interesting and entertaining in spite of its lack of depth. He is a master at drawing emotion and background into his characters despite their little screen time. I criticised The Holiday for lacking an individual flavour or style. However simple it is, Love Actually has that: you can find it in Colin Firth’s uttering of ‘oh god she’s in’ when his maid jumps in the lake. Curtis always brings a sincerity and an eye for the humour in our bumbling social interactions that is genuinely funny.

That said, I still think that the best sections are the ones with a bit of sadness to them. The pain helps us latch onto the characters more deeply, and view them as real people rather than pawns in Curtis’ heartwarming game. The Liam Neeson storyline, working through grief with his step-son (who I have been told looks like me), connects to me on a much greater level than say the Hugh Grant or Colin Firth parts. Ditto the agonising scenes with Laura Linney desperately trying to start a relationship whilst caring for her brother. And what more can we say about Emma Thompson when she finds out Alan Rickman has done the dirty on her? It is such a basic, thinly sketched plot point, but in her hands it feels like the end of the world.

Yet there is value in the lighter parts, of course. Who doesn’t love watching the Prime Minister dance around Number 10? Or Bill Nighy swearing endlessly in a way that almost makes the film feel more wholesome? Another reason Curtis gets away with making a film I on paper should be ripping to shreds is how well-balanced the serious and the light-hearted parts are. Without the comedy the film would appear to take itself too seriously; without the acknowledgement of love’s pain, too superficial and nice.

Then, of course, there’s the miraculous cast he assembled for this. Some are note-perfect throughout, breathing life into a potentially flat story. Some lines, moments and entire scenes feel unnecessary and inauthentic. Some poorly written, even. But for every weak part there’s three good, leading to a whole that after all this time I still enjoy curling up to watch. Well done, everyone. You won me over again.

Where it Ranks

However much I enjoy it, I still don’t think Love Actually sits near the top of this pretty strong list. It is mid-tier, I feel, and so hard to compare to the likes of Home Alone and Gremlins. It is, at the end of the day, nothing more than a dozen other films condensed down into one, but without the complexity or deep feeling of any of them. Yet Curtis still manages to do a lot with a little. Let’s go with sixth, shall we? What swings it over the rest of the mid-section is probably its overarching tone of love and optimism that is so familiar, yet here feels so genuine that – at this time, in this year – it is hard to resist.

  1. Die Hard
  2. Klaus
  3. Arthur Christmas
  4. Elf
  5. The Nightmare Before Christmas
  6. Love Actually
  7. Gremlins
  8. Home Alone
  9. Krampus
  10. Nativity!
  11. The Holiday
  12. The Santa Clause

Andrew Young