Love Actually (2003)

Mary Colgan

On occasion, the film allows a jaded sensibility to worm its way into this otherwise picturesque world.

Love Actually

Director: Richard Curtis
Cast: Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Laura Linney, Liam Neeson, Martine McCutcheon, Keira Knightley, Andrew Lincoln, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kris Marshall, Lúcia Moniz, Martin Freeman, Thomas Sangster
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Universal Pictures
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-11-07

If you want to be a big cranky-pants Scrooge, go ahead and walk out of Love Actually, the new romantic comedy from screenwriter/first-time director Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones' Diary). After all, it isn't perfect. Curtis stuffs at least 10 love stories and 15 principal characters into two hours, and the result is a hodgepodge of feel-good tales (some more entertaining than others) that offer the message that love conquers all... or at least it should.

Curtis' unflaggingly generous film opens with the juxtaposition of two holiday scenes. A montage of people greeting their loved ones at London's Heathrow Airport stands for the true spirit of Christmas (friends and family members hug and kiss, as Hugh Grant's voiceover reminds us that, in times of tragedy, such as after September 11, people's first instinct is to express their love). Just as you're feeling all warm and fuzzy, the film cuts to a recording studio where aging rock musician Billy Mack (hilariously portrayed by Bill Nighy) massacres The Troggs' "Love is All Around," attempting to turn it into a hit entitled "Christmas is All Around" ("So if you really love Christmas," he croons, after a few slip-ups, "Come on and let it snow!"). Billy, self-aware and cynical, represents the corny, consumerist side of Christmas.

Though Love Actually acknowledges this side, it prefers to do so with gentle humor, and to view the holidays as a magical time during which you can confess your feelings to the one you love and things will work out beautifully. Love occurs in obviously sweet situations, such as 11-year-old Sam's (the adorable Thomas Sangster) love for a glamorous, talented classmate (Olivia Olson), as well as less obvious ones, such as craggy Billy's platonic but undeniable love for his portly, devoted manager (Gregor Fisher). The film also postulates (though not entirely successfully) that pure-hearted romances can develop under circumstances that (maybe especially in the post-Monica Lewinsky U.S.) make many viewers squirm: three relationships develop between women and their bosses, including one between England's newly-elected Prime Minister (Grant) and charming, potty-mouthed assistant Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), whose primary responsibility at 10 Downing Street seems to be fetching tea and biscuits.

On occasion, the film allows a jaded sensibility to worm its way into this otherwise picturesque world. Office romances provide opportunity for this, such as when the U.S. president (Billy Bob Thornton) visits the Prime Minister. Wasting no time with trivialities like diplomacy or conversation, he instantly makes a sleazy pass at Natalie, who appears incapable of refusing him, bringing up questions of power imbalance that you'd much rather not ponder in a light-hearted holiday comedy. Another burgeoning office affair features Harry (Alan Rickman), who makes only the feeblest attempt to fend off the advances of his absurdly suggestive, leering secretary Mia (Heike Makatsch). This unromantic, unsexy pairing never rings true, though it does lead to the more interesting story of Harry's devastated wife Karen (beautifully played by Emma Thompson). Karen is one of the few characters not offered an opportunity for blissful love; she has to cope with her pain and humiliation in private and get on with the business of raising her two children.

More often, however, the film sticks to its "You can't control whom you love and you'll never be complete unless you at least make a go at it" premise. Sarah (Laura Linney), one of the film's most affecting characters, fights such an obvious internal battle between repression and unfulfilled passion that it's impossible not to root for her. She has pined for her sexy co-worker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) throughout the two years they've worked together, though other obligations (namely, to her handicapped and institutionalized brother) make it heartbreakingly difficult for her to pursue him. Still, as soon as she even contemplates asking him out, he appears at her side at an office party and requests a dance.

Curtis doesn't try to pretend that this fortuity is realistic. He has made a remarkably self-aware film; it manages to be both a romantic comedy and a parody of romantic comedy. As Sam informs his stepdad Daniel (Liam Neeson) right off the bat, no one gets together "until the end." And, in a delightfully offbeat storyline, horny lad Colin (Kris Marshall) travels to Wisconsin, convinced that American girls are less uptight and will most likely sleep with him just because they think his accent is cute. Lo and behold, at the first bar he tries, beautiful, able-bodied females (including Elisha Cuthbert) swarm him and practically rub themselves up and down his body in their excitement at being so close to a real live Englishman. In this film, anyone can have a happy ending.

Love Actually is cheerful and undeniably romantic and, despite its flaws, you'd be hard-pressed to sit through the credits without smiling. Anyone who can watch tiny Sam run with all his might to proclaim his agonizing, 11-year-old love without getting verklempt either has the Grinch's two-sizes-too-small heart or needs a visit from the ghost of Christmas Future.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.