May 2023

Love Actually (2003)

DIRECTOR: Richard Curtis


Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Laura Linney,Bill Nighy, Keira Knightley, Kris Marshall, Heike Makatsch, Martin Freeman, Joanna Page,Chiwetel Ejiofor, Andrew Lincoln, Martine McCutcheon, Thomas Sangster, Lúcia Moniz, Rodrigo Santoro, Rowan Atkinson, Billy Bob Thornton


Love Actually is taglined as ‘the ultimate romantic comedy’, and while I wouldn’t go that far, it might be the most ambitious. Writer-Director Richard Curtis, in his first time in the director’s chair (he was screenwriter for such romantic comedies as Four Weddings And A Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’ Diary, all three of which also featured Hugh Grant and the last of which co-starred Colin Firth), has elected to split screentime up between a long list of characters, pairing most of them up with someone or other, hoping the cumulative effect of the sheer volume of romantic couplings will result in the feel-good movie of the year. And while Curtis might not quite hit his highest targets, he doesn’t miss them by much. Love Actually is a breezy, enjoyable experience with enough love to please most romantically inclined audience members and enough humor to make it entertaining for everyone else.

There are five stories I’d consider the main ones, and about four more peripheral plotlines. The new Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) has a crush on a young secretary named Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). Recent widower Daniel (Liam Neeson) is trying to bond with his stepson Sam (Hugh Grant’s real-life nephew Thomas Sangster), who’s head over heels for a classmate. Karen (Emma Thompson), Daniel’s friend and the Prime Minister’s sister, is unaware that her husband Harry (Alan Rickman) is toying with the idea of an affair with a blatantly suggestive co-worker (Heike Makatsch). Another of Harry’s co-workers, the lonely American Sarah (Laura Linney), pines for Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). And would-be author Jamie (Colin Firth), after catching his girlfriend cheating on him with his brother, has gone on vacation to France, where he engages in a silent romance with his Portuguese maid Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz)—he speaks no Portuguese and she speaks no English. We also spend a little time- though not quite as much- with Juliet (Keira Knightley), new bride of Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and the unrealizing object of Mark’s (Andrew Lincoln) undying affection, wannabe ladies’ man Colin Frissel (Kris Marshall), who’s convinced he’ll have better luck with American girls, a couple of porn actors (Martin Freeman and Joanna Page), who act out nude sex scenes but are too shy to ask each other out, and last but not least, Billy Mack (scene-stealer Bill Nighy), a rock-and-roll has-been attempting a Christmas comeback.

With so many plotlines packed into a little over two hours, it’s probably inevitable that some of them are more interesting than others. The conclusion of Sam’s infatuation with an American classmate is over-the-top sugar-coated fantasy land stuff, even by the standards of the rest of the movie. Colin Frissel’s instant luck with American women (including cameos by Elisha Cuthbert, January Jones, Shannon Elizabeth, and Denise Richards) is pretty far-fetched too. But Love Actually builds enough goodwill that even its sillier moments are fairly easy to overlook. Even when the warm fuzzy feeling is artificial, such as in the contrived epilogue, wrapping everything up in a neat little bow, the movie coasts along on the momentum of what’s gone before. The only really distasteful element is the way Martine McCutcheon as Natalie is continually referred to as chubby. She is actually nothing of the sort, and when perfectly average women are incessantly described as chubby, can people wonder at the high number of girls and women determined to make themselves as thin as possible? It’s a minor, but irksome point.

Unsurprisingly considering the names involved, the acting in Love Actually is problem-free. The large cast includes some of the UK’s biggest stars: Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, and Keira Knightley, along with a couple Americans like Laura Linney and Billy Bob Thornton. All of the actors are likable and appealing (except for the deliberately dislikable ones), with Hugh Grant supplying his usual wealth of vaguely inept charm and Colin Firth using his own understated brand, while Alan Rickman provides a little dry humor. Kris Marshall’s Colin Frissel and Rowan Atkinson in an amusing cameo as a fastidious sales clerk are on hand purely for comic relief, while Liam Neeson and Emma Thompson provide the most mix of comedy and drama. But the real scene-stealer is Bill Nighy as Billy Mack, who is laugh-out-loud hilarious every time he appears. Everyone else does fine with what they’re given (some of the actors’ total individual screentimes are pretty short).

Richard Curtis always mixes in a little bit of sadness with the humor (like John Hannah’s long, eloquent eulogy at his partner’s funeral in the otherwise overrated Four Weddings and a Funeral), and Love Actually isn’t an exception. There are a few genuinely poignant moments scattered around, such as Daniel’s speech at his wife’s funeral, Juliet realizing Mark’s feelings, and most of all, Karen’s inadvertent discovery of her husband’s near-infidelity (with this impeccably acted scene, Emma Thompson manages to craft a memorable dramatic performance where one might not expect to find it), and not everyone gets a “happily ever after”.  Like the funeral in Four Weddings and a Funeral, these dramatic scenes have the ring of emotional truth. There’s even a touch of political commentary in a cameo by Billy Bob Thornton as the visiting American President who acts like a combination of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. And while it’s technically a Christmas movie, it focuses more on the relationships between the characters than any particular season. Those who want to watch Love Actually at another time of the year probably won’t find it distracting.

Love Actually isn’t anything deep or substantial. It’s completely unapologetic and unabashed feel-good fluff, but for the most part, it is entertaining, well-acted feel-good fluff that achieves its objective and every once in a while gives a dash of poignancy. Curtis’ script has the pretty consistent level of wit and irreverence that we would expect, and there are a few comedic highlights, mostly related to Billy Mack, but also including a dance number by Hugh Grant and a convoluted subtitled climactic proposal. Most importantly, the movie generates enough goodwill to coast over its obvious shortcomings and be enjoyed for what it is. Most viewers will walk away with a smile on their face, even if they admit it grudgingly.