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Without hope or agenda: A defense of Love Actually

Screenshot: Love Actually
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It takes a lot to become a new Christmas classic, so it’s doubly impressive that Love Actually managed to enter that pantheon while also holding the distinction of being one of the most divisive holiday movies ever made. Love Actually carries a lot of baggage these days, from pointed critiques about the film’s lack of diversity and questionable treatment of women to a broader sense that there’s something crassly commercial about the whole thing. (It doesn’t help that Love Actually inspired a whole subgenre of lackluster holiday-themed ensemble rom-coms.) In fact, I’ve spent the past few years actively avoiding the film—which had once been a perennial favorite in the Siede household—for fear that watching it with older, wiser eyes would ruin it for me.

But I’m happy to report that far from diminishing my affection, revisiting Love Actually immediately brought back the joy I felt watching this movie throughout middle and high school. Which is not to forgive its more problematic aspects, nor to say it’s wrong to dislike it. But for those who are able to lock into the film’s tone—or perhaps just those who saw it at the right age—writer-director Richard Curtis’ charming Christmas confection has yet to go stale, even if it very much feels like a product of its time.

By 2003, Curtis was already a British rom-com institution, having written Four Weddings And A Funeral and Notting Hill and co-written Bridget Jones’s Diary. Love Actually was his directorial debut. It began life as two separate scripts: the Hugh Grant storyline about a bachelor prime minister and the Colin Firth storyline about a recently dumped novelist who finds love in France. Inspired by Robert Altman’s work, Curtis decided to turn those two initial ideas into an ensemble film about love itself. Love Actually eventually became a London-centric film about nine interconnected stories that all deal with love—mostly romantic love but also friendship and familial love as well. According to Five Thirty Eight’s impressively detailed data analysis of the film, Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant are just about tied for the most screentime, with about 31 minutes each. The other talented main cast members mostly make their impressions in about 25 minutes or less.

Rewatching the film with fresh eyes made me realize that beyond aiming to be the ultimate romantic comedy ever made, Love Actually is even more so trying to be a musical. Craig Armstrong’s sweeping orchestral score is the film’s fifth most important character, and needle drops punctuate just about every big emotional moment, most memorably when Joni Mitchell expresses Emma Thompson’s heartbroken internal monologue. The chart-topping Christmas novelty song recorded by aging rock star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) plays throughout the film. There’s a surprise wedding performance, a pop song at a funeral, and an extended sequence of the prime minister grooving to The Pointer Sisters. And, of course, there’s also a full-on musical production number of “All I Want For Christmas Is You.”

Musicals favor emotional expression over realism and so does Love Actually, which is a critique that’s sometimes lodged against the film (as well argued by Christopher Orr and well rebutted by Ben Dreyfuss). But I don’t think Love Actually’s lack of realism or depth is inherently a bad thing. As I mentioned in my column on Enchanted, we often put an unfair expectation on relationship-focused media aimed at women and girls to function as instructional in a way we don’t with media aimed at men and boys. That British writer Jamie (Colin Firth) and Portuguese housekeeper Aurélia (Lúcia Moniz) have a magical connection that crosses their language barrier and inspires them to get engaged when they barely know each other isn’t meant to be a how-to guide to a healthy relationship anymore than Seven is designed to be a how-to guide on how to be a detective or Ocean’s 11 is designed to be a realistic heist film. Love Actually isn’t trying to tell nine well-rounded love stories, it’s offering a tapestry of love (or at least a tapestry of wealthy, white, heterosexual, London-based love) in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

In doing some very anecdotal research, I found that while most people seem to agree that some of Love Actually’s storylines are better than others, there’s very little consensus on which are the good ones and which are the bad ones. (Well, except for the “comedic” runner about Kris Marshall’s Colin getting laid in America, which seems to be pretty universally reviled.) I suspect that a big part of the reason people have such differing reactions is because Love Actually’s characters are so thinly drawn that the movie all but requires you to fill in their backstories and motivations on your own. Love Actually is literally a different viewing experience depending on what you project onto it.

That’s especially true of the Keira Knightley/Andrew Lincoln/Chiwetel Ejiofor storyline, which is both one of the most iconic and one of the most divisive elements of the movie. It’s also, crucially, the one whose characters we know the least about. The storyline starts at the wedding of Juliet (Knightley) and Peter (Ejiofor), where Mark (Lincoln) is serving as best man. Eventually, Juliet discovers that Mark’s standoffish behavior isn’t because he hates her but because he’s secretly in love with her, which he decides to confess “without hope or agenda” via cue cards and fake carol singers.

The general consensus for those who hate this storyline is that it’s weird that Mark is in love with his best friend’s wife, weird that he confesses that love in such a performative manner, and weird that Juliet is so nice about the whole thing. I don’t disagree with any of that, but those are actually the things I like about it. Sometimes infatuation is weird and inopportune, and I like when romantic comedies acknowledge that. The cue card thing is really less an example of cheesy romance and more a product of the fact that Mark is a supremely awkward character, something Lincoln plays brilliantly and doesn’t get nearly enough credit for. As Alyssa Rosenberg writes in her piece on how Love Actually functions as a romantic tragedy:

When Mark tells Juliet he loves her, she goes back to her husband, because wanting someone doesn’t magically compel them to throw over their lives in order to be with you. The gesture is fundamentally about Mark, just as his entire infatuation has been. When he walks off down the street and quietly tells himself, “Enough. Enough now,” it’s an appropriately deflating and honest moment, and one that more romantic comedies with pretensions to insight would be wise to study closely.

Again, the level to which you find Mark and Juliet’s behavior weird or unbelievable comes down to whatever you want to project onto them. I read Juliet briefly kissing Mark as a moment of lovely empathy toward the universally shitty experience of unrequited love. Others read it as a bizarre moment of creepy male wish fulfillment. None of us have any real evidence to cite because neither Mark nor Juliet are actual characters.

Which brings us to Love Actually’s depiction of women, which is definitely one of the most valid criticisms lodged against it. Even with the most generous reading of the film, it’s clear that Love Actually simply cares way more about its male characters than its female ones. Of its nine major storylines, only two are told from the perspective of women—the Laura Linney and Emma Thompson threads. Notably, those are also the two most tragic storylines too; Thompson’s Karen is dealing with her husband’s potential affair and Linney’s Sarah finds a new romance stymied by her duties toward her mentally ill brother. The choice to balance out the film’s romantic cheerfulness with some melancholy is one of Love Actually’s smartest decisions, and it gives Thompson and Linney some fantastic material to work with. But in a film about grown men acting like giddy teenagers, it’s not a great look that the only two women over 35 are the ones stuck acting out quiet adult tragedies. (Mark is the only male lead with an unhappy arc and it has that much more romanticized, uplifting ending.)

It’s also not a great look that there are not one but three storylines about middle-aged men falling for their much younger female subordinates, including the original Grant and Firth storylines and the Alan Rickman through-line that accompanies the Thompson one. Of those, the Grant one is the most egregious (at one point he fires his love interest for being sexually harassed by the president of the United States, a fact the film seems to realize but then never actually grapple with). If you could perhaps hand-wave away some of those problematic elements in isolation, the weight of them all in one film is pretty bad. Add to that the objectively terrible Kris Marshall runner, some standard early 2000s era body-shaming, and the fact that Rickman’s workplace crush is played as a one-note jezebel who lives in an apartment that looks like a Bond villain’s lair and literally wears devil horns to a Christmas party, and, yeah, it’s not hard to see why this film leaves a bad taste in so many people’s mouths.

I’m totally sympathetic toward those who’d rather just toss the whole movie out than deal with all its bullshit. But, for me at least, there’s just enough good to balance out the bad. The Martin Freeman/Joanna Page storyline about two shy people engaging in the most chaste of flirtations while acting out wildly sexual scenes as film set stand-ins offers one of the sweetest, healthiest relationships in rom-com history. In a movie full of questionable male leads, Freeman’s character is a shining beacon for respecting women in even the strangest of work environments. Plus, the real heart of Love Actually isn’t a romantic relationship at all, but the beautifully realized father/son dynamic between newly widowed Daniel (Liam Neeson) and his stepson, Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). And while there’s really no excuse for the lack of racial diversity and LGBT representation in an ensemble this big (there was a quick, tragic lesbian storyline cut for time—maybe for the best given that it would’ve added to the “bury your gays” trope), I’ve always loved the underplayed moment Daniel tries to get to the bottom of Sam’s crush by asking, “And what does she [or] he feel about you?”

If that’s me giving Love Actually way too much credit for doing the absolute bare minimum, well, that’s fair. I clearly have a lot of affection for this movie, which probably makes me view it through rose-colored glasses. But it’s also true that for all his big picture messiness and ill-considered gender dynamics, Richard Curtis is a master at small-scale interactions and dialogue, which is what makes the Daniel/Sam storyline so compelling. For all of Curtis’ infatuation with big gestures, he doesn’t make too much of a meal of the moment Sam first calls Daniel “dad,” and it’s all the stronger for it. Many of Love Actually’s best exchanges have nothing to do with love at all. “Eight is a lot of legs, David,” one woman knowingly informs the prime minister about her son’s homemade nativity play octopus costume. I’ll never not laugh at Mark rebutting a group of school kids giggling at his art gallery’s half-naked displays by scolding, “Actually, they’re not funny—they’re art.”

There’s just something warm and charming and beautifully balanced in Love Actually’s mix of heightened fantasy and more grounded realism. That none of the film’s copycats have been able to recapture that tone may be because Love Actually was a bit of a happy accident. Curtis compared the editing process to “three-dimensional chess” because there were so many storylines to balance. Digging into the film’s production history, it’s remarkable how many places it very nearly went wrong. For instance, the original plan was for Thomas Brodie-Sangster’s adorable moppet to be a gymnastic wunderkind, and his big climactic dash through the airport was meant to include somersaulting, cartwheeling, and an uneven bar routine straight out of The Lost World: Jurassic Park. An unfinished version of the scene is included in the movie’s deleted scenes. Cutting it might’ve been the single smartest decision in rom-com history.

Perhaps it was a Christmas guardian angel (another storyline that was cut) that allowed Curtis and editor Nick Moore to avoid those pitfalls and instead craft a beautifully paced (if slightly overlong) romantic comedy that effortlessly shifts between tones while offering a cascading series of small emotional climaxes before its big, sweeping romantic finale. As Curtis smartly observed on the movie’s 10 year anniversary, “I think it’s aged quite well because the viewer never really knows what’s coming next. I think you’re always slightly a little surprised, like, ‘Oh! We’re back in Portugal,’ so it’s slightly less monotonous on a re-watch.” Love Actually is a kind of choose-your-own-adventure rom-com, both because you can project a lot onto it and because you can focus on whichever storylines you prefer while glazing over the ones you like less. For better or for worse, Love Actually tends to be all around us this time of year. After years of running from that fact, I’m finally ready to embrace it again.

Next time: 27 Dresses doesn’t deserve your hated and neither does Katherine Heigl. We’ll see you back here in 2019.