Love Actually (2003)

“Love is everywhere.”

I find it nearly to impossible to not swoon over the sentimental beginning of Love Actually. Released at the start of 2003’s cozy holiday season, the film uses the brief narrated opening to curiously memorialize the victims of 9/11 and to explain how love endures through even the most tragic of circumstances. The shot is incredibly grounded and human, and I think the gravest mistake the film makes is that it fails to once more reconnect on such a deeply human level until the very end, once again using real footage of airport reunions. I used to love the saccharine sweetness of Love Actually, yet 17 years later the taste has turned bitter and sour. It’s mediocre at best and the story is only saved by the outstanding ensemble. I can’t believe it’s hailed as a modern day Christmas classic.

Love Actually crams ten separate yet faintly connected stories into its nearly two and a half hour run-time, making for a film that’s unjustifiably overlong, especially given how pointless a few of those stories are. Do we really need the softcore porn actors John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page)? Does anyone actually care about Colin Frissell’s (Kris Marshall) sex quest to America? And there’s so little depth to the office romance between Sarah (Laura Linney) and Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). Even the relationship with Jamie (Colin Firth) and the Portuguese Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz) lacks for honest emotions, and their ending is completely improbable. All of these chapters have memorable moments, but they don’t bring much to the film besides dead weight. They should have been cut from the script, or at the very least, been left on the cutting room floor.

I can imagine a much better movie here with exactly half the storylines, all centered around exploring love through different means of expression. Mostly, it’d just be more interesting to spend more time with the chapters focused on the more compelling characters. To see the real struggles in the marriage between Karen (Emma Thompson) and Harry (Alan Rickman). To further explore grief through the lives of the widowed Daniel (Liam Neeson) and the motherless Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). To allow the new Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) and his office aide Natalie (Martine McCutcheon) to actually get to know one another. To show the “what if” of love through Mark’s (Andrew Lincoln) quiet pining for his best friend’s bride Juliet (Keira Knightley). Heck, it’d even be nice to use rock and roll’s comeback kid Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) as a sort of way to segue between stories and the countdown to Christmas. But that’s just me.

Far from his first writing credit but still his directorial debut, Love Actually shows the many strengths as well as the flaws of Richard Curtis. As I’ve said before, the man has a knack for creating movie moments that stick with you. Sometimes they seem destined for parody, as is the case for the infamously cheesy – yet entirely effective – “To me, you are perfect” love confession. But the more powerful ones come from when he takes a less is more approach. Keira Knightley gets to convey her character’s shock with simple yet effective expressions while watching Mark’s recording of her wedding day. Emma Thompson absolutely tears your heart to pieces after finding out her husband’s infidelity, all to the tune of Joni Mitchell. And who can forget Hugh Grant’s dance number? Say what you want either way about the overall quality of the film; it’s still undeniable that certain scenes are cemented in your memory.

Love Actually hasn’t aged well over time, and is surprisingly a bit problematic when it comes to the controversial fat-shaming of Natalie. Curtis’ argument was that viewers were supposed to understand that Natalie didn’t deserve the critique, to say “No she isn’t!” It’s the reaction I’ve had every single time I’ve watched the film. But then towards the end of the movie Aurelia’s father calls her sister “Miss Dunkin Donut 2003” just before saying to Aurelia, “You skinny moron.” So no, since he was the writer, I don’t believe Curtis’ justification. Love Actually contains a lot of things you wouldn’t be able to get away with today, and ultimately is so obsessed with showcasing the grand gestures of love that it tends to forget the intimacy that makes those gestures matter in the first place. Turns out I don’t love this one, actually.

“If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”

Rating: 3 out of 5

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