Love Actually is now 17 years old, so while I appreciate this review is a little tardy, it’s better late than never and for this particularly weird Christmas, I was curious to see if the film had aged better than I have.
On occasion, rewatching a ‘classic’ with fresh eyes can be elucidating (although my advice is to leave the DVDs of Pretty Woman and The Notebook to languish in the bargain bin at WH Smith along with Davina’s Toned in 10). In this case, the second viewing (alone in bed with a bowl of tiramisu and the electric blanket cranked up to ‘gates of hell’) was most revealing because guess what? Love, Actually isn’t about love at all.
I thought about treading with caution here because the movie is a British ‘festive favourite’, cherished by many as a feel good Christmas classic to watch in front of the fire. But I decided against it, because Love Actually doesn’t deserve our affection. It’s a spiritless and insincere salmagundi that deserves to be in the compost bin with your leftover Brussels sprouts.
The movie begins with an aphoristic amble from a pre-The Undoing Hugh Grant. “Love is not dignified or newsworthy but if you look for it, love actually is all around,” he narrates as Marti Pellow flings a cushion at the telly and calls his agent. As Hugh sermonises, we watch ‘normal people’ arrive at Heathrow airport greeted by warm embraces from loved ones, eyes half full of happy tears. And they should cry, because wasn’t freedom of movement in 2003 grand!
But Hugh is wrong, love is not all around in this movie, in fact it’s nowhere to be found. What Love Actually pushes on us instead is a pre #MeToo imagining of high romance, where women are lovely because they are non-threatening, passive and available. Or they are bad and have severe haircuts.
Yet Love Actually can’t (and didn’t) fail because it utilises a tried (tired) and tested Hollywood algorithm for success: all-star ensemble cast and universal themes all chopped into bitesize pieces that look nice but, like those Brie and gooseberry chutney crostini you wolfed at your work do, are very disappointing and will leave you feeling a bit sick after.
Allow me to refresh your memory…
The prime minister & his tea lady Natalie (Hugh Grant & Martine McCutcheon)
Love Actually is 100% a middle class white man’s narrative so no guessing who the hero is here. It’s our handsome Hugh! Who falls for his tea lady Natalie, despite her being from the wrong side of the tracks and being “plumpy”.
There’s a troubling running joke about women and their weight in this movie — not just with Natalie, whose supposed huge thighs and chubbiness are referenced more than anything else about her, but later when another female character is called “Miss Dunkin’ Donuts”.
Anyway, don’t let that little detail put you off. Back to the romance, which involves Hugh getting to know his fave staff member by asking her if she has a boyfriend or “three illegitimate children?” and then doing precisely nothing when he walks in on her being sexually harassed by the president of America (she later says sorry to him for this and assures him that she had no part in it). It’s all very sweet though because later our reluctant knight in shining armour gives the president a piece of his mind at a press conference, which is almost the same as stepping in when you witness a powerful man sexually harassing one of your staff in your home isn’t it? I also love how the PM doesn’t let the fact that he’s educated and posh stop him from falling in love with an ordinary little skivvy with a potty mouth. Heartwarming.
Jamie and his cleaner Aurelia (Colin Firth & Lúcia Moniz)
Ready for another posh man to sweep a humble woman off her feet? Great! After his girlfriend cheats on him, writer Jamie (you’ll know he’s a writer because he wears cord blazers and has a typewriter) falls for his cleaner — sorry, housekeeper — despite the fact that he speaks not one word of Portuguese and she speaks no English. After cleaning for Colin and serving him tea for a while, the clumsy cleaner makes a boo boo, causing our Col’s magnum opus to blow away into a lake. So of course, she takes off all her clothes and jumps in a lake to save it. This scene is so shoehorned into the movie you can almost hear the writers thinking HOW DO WE GET HER TO STRIP? as you watch it. Anyway, she jumps in the freezing lake to retrieve his pages (one simply can’t get help like that these days!) and he realises he loves her. Despite this (and the fact that she clearly needs a job) he ships her off home and then later, when he gets fed up back in England, goes to save her from a life of servitude and her uncouth foreign family by proposing. The stuff of dreams.
Advice to Aurelia: Colin Firth is a piece but you probably shouldn’t marry someone if you have never understood a single word that has come out of their mouth. But good luck to you girl, and I hope he’s better in the sack than he is at learning languages.
Colin Frissell & four sexy American chicks (Kris Marshall, January Jones, Ivana Miličević, Elisha Cuthbert & Shannon Elizabeth)
Despite trying to chat up every single woman he comes into contact with, walking erection Colin can’t find a girl in England (stuck-up bores the lot of them!) so he jets off to America where women are stupid and will drop their knickers for anyone with an accent. Even a Basildon one. Within 10 seconds of walking into a bar he is propositioned by three incredibly sexy women, who invite them back to sleep in their tiny home in the bed they share together (Oi oi! They’re not actually lesbians tho mate, don’t worry!!) with another sexy female flatmate. Colin’s dick must be made of magic and they all love him but realistically he can only take one back to England for himself. BUT nice guy that he is, he brings one back for his friend too and hands her over at the airport like a Toblerone he bought at duty free. Lesson: sexy women have no brains or feelings so are ideal for passing around like chocolates. If we could catch up with Colin now he would have been dumped and started an incel.
Karen & Harry & Mia, Harry’s secretary (Emma Thompson & Alan Rickman & Heike Makatsch)
Harry and Mia’s relationship is very weird. He’s the boss of a charity (I think?) and she’s his raven-haired (CLUE ABOUT HER PERSONALITY!) secretary. Mia is “up for it” as she demonstrates by spreading her legs when Harry asks her where she’s booked for the Christmas do. But she’s half his age and ‘game’ so he kinda likes it. Only one problem, he has a wife who really loves him. Oh bother! Still, he decides to go for it with Mia and buys her a very expensive necklace for Christmas and spends £10.99 on a Joni Mitchell CD for his wife. Karen does give him a bit of a telling off eventually, when she catches him out, but stays with him of course because even though he’s an inattentive, slimy and duplicitous bastard, he’s better than nothing isn’t he?
I hate this plotline for many reasons but especially because when Emma Thompson opens the present she thinks is the necklace but is actually the CD and then goes out to cry alone so no one sees her, I cried all over my tiramisu too.
Judy & John (Joanna Page & Martin Freeman)
This is the most painful of all the vignettes to watch, and weirdly the most forgettable considering it’s the most risqué for Love Actually.
To summarise: Judy and John are working as stand-ins for what is bound to be the most vanilla porno movie ever. He’s just a regular bloke! She’s got a regional accent! And (hee hee) they are pretending to do anal while chatting about the traffic on the M25! WHAT COULD BE MORE BRITISH!
Sarah & Karl (Laura Linney & Rodrigo Santoro)
Almost every single person in this movie is absolutely CRAZY about each other despite having said piss all to each other. But no one more so than the super Laura Linney (who could act her way out of almost anything) and bespectacled bae Karl. Somehow, Sarah finds the strength deep within her to overlook Karl’s name and the way he spells it and falls for him BUT she has a brother who is in a mental hospital and needs her so she suppresses her sex drive and sacrifices her personal happiness and stays faithful like a good doggie! I mean, woman.
And now, for a brief side note on some things I learned about women from Love Actually:
1. Women who wake up in the morning will always have ‘messy’ hair, which means soft ghd waves, and they will always be ‘casual’ i.e. wearing a baseball T-shirt or oversized men’s shirt, but they will NEVER be wearing pants and their legs will be so Immac-ed and shiny you could serve sushi on them.
2. If hot women take their clothes off, it will be in slow motion.
3. Mums wear Spanx and beige bras, and single women walk around their apartments in matching Ann Summers sets.
4. If they ever get wet (and they will), they must remain buck naked afterwards but drape themselves in a blanket, clavicles exposed and hair just like the ‘wake up and fake yawn’ morning woman hair but a little damp. There will always be an obligatory tendril in front of their eyes.
Daniel, his dead wife & obsessive child (Liam Neeson, doesn’t matter & Thomas Brodie-Sangster)
This is a really important thread in the rich tapestry that is Love, Actually. Liam Neeson’s wife has just died and that’s really sad so he cries for a bit but not for too long because yes, yes, death of a young spouse is sad and all that but you can still have LOLs at the funeral and then forget about her altogether when you get the horn for Claudia Schiffer when you happen to bump into her at your creepy stepkid’s nativity play. When he does shed a tear about Dead Wife, his mate Karen (also Emma Thompson) calls him a sissy and tells him to “get a grip” because “no one will shag him if he’s crying all time.” But of course they will, silly. Also horrifying? Thomas Brodie-Sangster is now 30 and a grand chess master who inexplicably dresses like a cowboy.
Juliet, Peter & Mark (Keira Knightley, Chiwetel Ejiofor & Andrew Lincoln)
Juliet and Peter just got married but Peter’s best friend Mark has been in love with Juliet for like forevs. He shows this by being really rude to her all the time, so much so that Juliet thinks Peter hates her. Top job, Mark! He loves her so much that he makes a whole movie of close-ups of her teeth. Being the good guy that he is, he professes his undying love behind his friend’s back.
What else can I say about Love Actually’s most famous scene, except that it is undoubtedly the proud winner of the Creepiest Storyline award. And winner of the Most Terrible Use Of Keira Knightley’s Time. And winner of The Most Underwritten Character Ever for Chiwetel Ejiofor.
The only positive we can take from this is that if anyone is ever rude and standoffish with you, you can rest assured that it’s not because they don’t like you. They are acting that way because they are head over heels in love with you! Par example, when an angry cyclist on a bike called me a stupid c*** when he zoomed past me on Friday, he was actually melting inside because he was SO in love with me.
Anyway, in conclusion, my problem with Love Actually is that it’s devoid of love. Especially for women. For most of them, ‘love’ is something they don’t expect or control but that happens to them, like being frotted on the Tube. The truth is love is messy and frequently very fucked up, but it’s got diddly-squat to do with grand gestures (a friend of mine once woke to the chilling sight of her name spelled out on her front lawn with daffodils stolen from her neighbours’ gardens. I advised her to telephone the police).
Before I switch off my electric blankie and go to sleep I will say this: Love Actually does have some redeeming features. Bill Nighy is brilliant as a washed-up rocker who would sell his soul to keep the royalty cheques coming. His is the funniest (however little rom there is in Love Actually, there’s even less com) storyline by far. Also: Julia Davis is in this movie, which is almost enough to save anything, unless it’s this saccharine sack of shit. Merry Christmas.
Originally published at https://www.refinery29.com.