Love Actually seems to be, at this point, a nationwide Christmas tradition. The evenings draw in, the trees and the wreaths and the lights go up, families reunite, and everyone manages to, at some point, get through two hours of festive-ish metropolitan romance (even pushing it into the top 10 on Netflix in the week coming up to the 25th). It’s a film with its fair share of critics and poorly-aged story beats (unnecessary fat jokes, a sprinkle of patriarchy, hints of adultery, an unfortunate lack of diversity especially for a film set in the UK’s least white city), but it remains one that I hold immensely close to my heart.
Richard Curtis’ classic is a love letter to London and, to an extent, humanity itself. He masterfully weaves an interconnected series of stories following various residents of the capital, played by what is essentially a who’s-who of British actors at the time, and their pursuit of, well, love. Hugh Grant is a single Prime Minister who falls helplessly (as he so effectively does in most movies he’s in) for his Catering Manager, Liam Neeson is a widower who helps his stepson Thomas Brodie-Sangster (who, fun fact, also voices Ferb) chase his primary school crush, Colin Firth is a writer who, after being cheated on by his wife and running away to France, becomes enamoured with his Portuguese cleaner despite the fact that they understand almost nothing that one another says; the list goes on. Special mention must go to Bill Nighy’s performance as a lewd, aged rocker going for Christmas number one—he is an omnipresent and utterly hysterical presence, marking one of the best outings of one of my favourite actors. As the movie progresses, we slowly see the links between each character grow into a complex web of relationships, adding a sense of unity and connectedness to the whole experience.
The result is a sort of highlight reel of romance: the first dates, the proposals and the heartbreaks, with the rest of the story having to be left to us to fill in. Love Actually’s wide scope means that unlike most other rom-coms, in which we tend to focus on the exploration and development of one or two relationships, the unlikely couples this movie homes in on get significantly less time and thus tend to be labelled surface-level and incredible by some of Love Actually’s detractors. That’s not how I see it, though: I think its breadth allows the film to cover a whole range of diverse love stories in one tight package. While we aren’t shown the growth of relationships in full, it’s not some compilation of people running into each other, having sex, then suddenly finding happily ever after—although sure, we don’t necessarily see the full build-up of each and every character’s relationships, that doesn’t make them any less believable. Rather than a deep dive into the complications of relationships, then, this film is about expressions of love: I don’t think that comparisons to most other rom-coms really do it justice.
Much like other Curtis screenplays such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually’s beauty lies in its honesty. Not all of its stories are perfect—many of them don’t even end happily (which, for a rom-com, is a bold move)—but neither does love in real life. Some explore different types of love to your classic girl-meets-boy: love between friends, siblings, families. The interplay between these and romantic love, often ending in tough and seemingly impossible choices in which our characters have to sacrifice one kind of love for another, leaves us with several bitter, painful and seemingly unjust conclusions interspersed with our feel-good heartwarmers. The thing is, this story doesn’t try to sell you some sort of wildly romantic, intercontinental epic built on impossible coincidences and indescribably instant connections like other seasonal movies might—instead, it tries to provide you a brief window into genuine, human relationships, flawed, raw and dashing though they may be. Yes, there’s cheating and jealousy and death and pain and heartbreak, and the film doesn’t try to hide that from you: those moments of despair are essential elements of its narrative. Above all, though, what Love Actually wants to show us is the scene at its beginning and end, in Arrivals at Heathrow Airport—the joy of seeing those families, friends and loved ones reuniting reminds us that despite all the hardship the world may throw at us, we are all greeted by those same beaming faces once we come home. All of us are loved.
Love, life, isn’t perfect. But that’s what makes it worth living—we need to get through the tough times to reach the good ones. Though Love Actually doesn’t mince its words, its overall message is one of hope: that if we look hard enough, love really is everywhere. Christmas is all about reminding us of that, I think, and few pieces of art are able to express it better. That’s why I come back to it every year—I absolutely adore this film, and I’ll tire of it once I tire of life itself.
For some actual critics who I used as negative references for this piece, look at these:
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