One of the numerous displays of affection in Love Actually, both small and large, the one that has always stood out to me is a small gesture. The prime minister played by Hugh Grant sits alone in the grand and cozy drawing room at No 10 on Christmas Eve, going through holiday cards in his red dispatch box. He comes across one from Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), the tea lady he has been longing for since their first, profanity-laced encounter. “If you can’t say it at Christmas, when can you, eh?” she writes. “I belong to you.”
Grant’s response to the small yet devoted statement is one that will not be forgotten, as he diligently searches through every door in the “dodgy end” of Wandsworth until he locates her. The movie enthusiastically proclaims that it’s the season of Christmas, a time to express your love for someone.
The first film directed by Richard Curtis, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, is not the top pick for anyone’s favorite romantic comedy. However, it is a beloved Christmas movie for many. Love Actually follows a group of mostly white, upper-middle-class Londoners as they fall in love, all while being self-deprecating and using creative language. While it received negative reviews from critics, it was a box office success, earning $247 million worldwide. The divide between critics and audiences continues to this day, with yearly harsh critiques of the film in December, while fans eagerly rewatch it. The film’s ensemble cast and romantic plot have inspired many imitations, such as Valentine’s Day and He’s Just Not That Into You, but have also been blamed for the decline of the romantic comedy genre.
The film tells nine interconnected stories that take place in a beautifully depicted London, with charming Notting Hill mews houses, worn wooden furniture, and the iconic orange-striped Waitrose bag. Each story explores a different aspect of love. The UK’s bachelor prime minister, played by Grant, struggles with infatuation and unfinished sentences. Firth’s character, a writer, falls in love with his Portuguese cleaner while staying in a cold countryside retreat. Linney’s character longs for a coworker, Nighy’s rockstar character makes a comeback with a Christmas single, Freeman and Page play awkward body doubles who develop feelings for each other, Neeson’s character helps his stepson woo his crush, Marshall’s character travels to Wisconsin for a chance at love, Lincoln’s character secretly pines for his best friend’s wife (played by Knightley and Ejiofor), and Thompson’s character is heartbroken when she discovers her husband’s almost affair with his assistant. The film culminates in a devastating scene of Thompson opening a box and realizing the truth about her husband’s infidelity.
The film’s complexity is one of the reasons for its enduring popularity. While the most heart-wrenching storylines, featuring Thompson and Linney in poignant and superb performances, are undoubtedly the standout, the exploration of various forms of love makes it worth revisiting. I was only 10 years old when the movie was released, the same age as Brodie-Sangster’s character, Sam. When his stepfather questions his love, Sam confidently responds, “No.” At the time, I related to the seriousness of my fellow pre-teen. However, as I have grown and experienced more, my perspective has shifted. I have also rewatched Love Actually multiple times.
Many of the storylines in these narratives favor the underdogs, which is uplifting. However, the majority of them focus on a male perspective, which is not as positive. During a reunion last year, Richard Curtis acknowledged that the film may feel outdated at times. The lack of diversity in the film makes me uncomfortable and seems foolish. However, the movie’s flaws are not solely due to its age; in fact, many of the criticisms raised by critics in 2003 are still relevant today. The film has been criticized for being too heterosexual, making too many fat jokes, portraying too many romantic relationships between a man and his female subordinate, being too American, being too sentimental, and having too many plotlines. Curtis’s declaration that “love, actually, is all around” may not have been well-received 20 years ago, just as it is not well-received now.
The film moves quickly between plot lines, neglecting character development. It heavily relies on unique elements, such as a Christmas lobster and the Bay City Rollers playing at a funeral, as well as the charming performances from the actors to make the story engaging. Curtis’s experience as a comedy writer (most notably on Blackadder) is evident in these scenes, such as Rowan Atkinson’s comedic cameo and Nighy’s enthusiastic destruction of his own song during promotional appearances.
According to Curtis, Love Actually isn’t just about romantic love, but rather the concept of love itself. The characters’ actions are solely driven by their love, which consumes them entirely. Grant’s character destroys the relationship between Britain and the US in response to Thornton’s president making advances towards McCutcheon. Grant’s impassioned speech about standing up to the Americans is not politically motivated, but rather a result of his crush on McCutcheon. This situation may seem absurd, but it is relatable to anyone who has experienced a crush.
The film’s brilliantly scored moments such as these are unforgettable, but Love Actually also highlights the theme of inaction when it comes to love. It often suggests that the biggest obstacle to finding love is ourselves – our own timidity and fear of rejection. This is exemplified by the plot involving Colin Firth’s character, a reserved Englishman, and a shy Portuguese woman, who can only express their affection for each other when they believe the other person cannot understand them. Like all the other characters in the film, he must gather the courage to express his true feelings – because it’s Christmas! As the film’s many climactic scenes wash over us in saccharine waves, Firth takes the leap and asks Lúcia Moniz’s character, Aurélia, to marry him in front of a crowd of onlookers. He concludes his awkward Portuguese proposal with a final statement: “It’s Christmas, so I just wanted to… double check.”
The movie embraces the concept of Christmas as a time when people feel more open and optimistic, a break from societal norms and inhibitions. It’s a belief that is both created and perpetuated by romantic comedies – that during the busy, idealized weeks of December, anything is possible. McCutcheon can finally write that Christmas card; Brodie-Sangster can sprint through the airport to catch his crush before she leaves; and, on a more sinister note, Lincoln’s character Mark can confess his love to Knightley’s character with a set of cue cards after asking her to lie to her husband.
The movie Love Actually highlights the themes of love and Christmas, as they are intertwined throughout the film. This is exemplified through Billy Mack’s rendition of the Troggs’ Love Is All Around, which he playfully changes to Christmas Is All Around. The song makes a playful plea to characters to express their love for each other during this festive season. However, it’s important to remember that the message may come across as overly sentimental, but it’s coming from the character of Nighy, a mischievous and flamboyant rockstar known for his outrageous behavior. Love Actually may not be a flawless film, but it’s ultimately just a lighthearted and enjoyable experience.