Director : Richard Curtis
Screenplay : Richard Curtis
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Bill Nighy (Billy Mack), Gregor Fisher (Joe), Colin Firth (Jamie), Liam Neeson (Daniel), Emma Thompson (Karen), Kris Marshall (Colin Frissell), Laura Linney (Sarah), Heike Makatsch (Mia), Martin Freeman (John), Joanna Page (Just Judy), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Peter), Andrew Lincoln (Mark), Keira Knightley (Juliet), Hugh Grant (The Prime Minister), Martine McCutcheon (Natalie), Alan Rickman (Harry), Lúcia Moniz (Aurelia)
As the title suggests, Richard Curtis’Love Actually is, quite simply, about love. Not just your standard romantic variety of love (though there is plenty of that to be found), but also the love between friends, parents and children, brothers and sisters, and even a broken down rock star and his portly manager. In an age marked by cynicism and irony, Love Actually is unashamedly upbeat, proudly proclaiming that even in the most dire of circumstances, love is all around and, if we don’t see it, it’s because we’re not looking for it. This is an obviously mushy sentiment, but Curtis is so earnest in upholding it that what otherwise might seem overly sentimental and cloying comes across as genuinely touching.
Curtis, who wrote the screenplays for a trio of the most popular romantic comedies in recent memory, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999), and Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001), makes his directorial debut here, and he shows a surprisingly sure hand in juggling two handfuls of interweaving plotlines involving dozens of characters, both British and American (all the better to sell the movie on both sides of the ocean). Since his goal is to cover the spectrum of that thing called love, it is not surprising that he chose to tell multiple stories with a wide range of characters so that he could hit all the high and low points. One of the reasons Curtis is such a successful writer of romantic comedies is that he has an intuitive sense of how to mix warmth and sadness, romance and pathos. His films are beautiful balancing acts of the comic and the tragic, and the only time Love Actually doesn’t really work is when he loses that balance, for example, in a subplot involving a couple who fall in love while working as stand-ins for a sex scene (it’s certainly funny in its own way, but it feels like it’s been imported from another, bawdier movie).
One of the pleasures of Love Actually is how Curtis slowly unveils how all of his characters are related. We can start with the character of the newly elected Prime Minister, played by Hugh Grant (who has appeared in all of Curtis’ most successful films) in a convincing mixture of charming confidence and utter insecurity. Upon his first arrival at 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister falls head over heels for his personal assistant, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). The most powerful man in Britain is reduced to weakness in the knees by the cute woman who brings him tea, and at one point he aggressively takes on the President of the United States (Billy Bob Thornton) in a press conference not so much because it’s a matter of political policy, but because the President had earlier come on to Natalie and thus needed to be shown up.
Other characters include the Prime Minister’s sister, Karen (Emma Thompson), a housewife who suspects that her husband, Harry (Alan Rickman), is having an affair with his receptionist. At Harry’s office, we meet Sarah (Laura Linney), who has been infatuated with her hunky coworker, Karl (Rodrigo Santoro), for two years and is too shy to do anything about it. She also receives constant calls on her cell phone, and we learn the reason why when she and Karl finally have a moment together and she must make an hard choice between romantic and familial love.
Karen is good friends with Daniel (Liam Neeson), who has recently been widowed and now lives alone with his precocious stepson, Sam (Thomas Sangster). In many ways, the relationship between Daniel and Sam is the film’s most poignant, particularly when Sam confesses to his stepfather than he is deeply in love with a girl at school. When Daniel chuckles and asks Sam if he thinks that being only 7 makes him a little too young to be in love, Sam answers without pause “No,” which neatly and directly sums up the film’s ethos about love being everywhere, regardless of age or station in life. Daniel makes it his goal to help Sam win over the love of his life, even though that means enduring hours of Sam learning to play the drums just so he can perform in the school Christmas pageant to impress her.
Many of these characters show up at the wedding of Juliet (Keira Knightley), who thinks that her husband’s best friend, Mark (Andrew Lincoln), resents her for taking his place, but she couldn’t be more wrong. And yet another plot involves a writer named Jamie (Colin Firth) who falls in love with his Portuguese maid (Lúcia Moniz). Even though they don’t speak the same language, they have an almost preternatural sense of what the other is saying, and they manage to carry on conversations without technically understanding a single word.
And, wrapped around all of this is the story of Billy Mack (Bill Nighy), a bitter, washed up rock star who is first seen recording a new Christmas version of his old hit song “Love is Everywhere” (the movie takes place in the weeks leading up to Christmas). It’s a pathetic attempt to cash in on ancient glory by inserting a new word into an old tune, and what’s so funny about Billy is that he is fully aware of it and makes no attempts to hide it. On radio talk shows, he gleefully admits that the song is “crap,” and his brutal honesty propels him back into the spotlight, where he continually confounds his manager by saying things on live TV like, “Kids, don’t buy drugs. Becomes a pop star and they’ll give ’em to you for free.”
That sounds like a lot, and at 129 minutes, Love Actually is definitely longer than your average romantic comedy. Yet, Curtis makes so much of it work so well that you’re drawn into these characters’ lives in a way that makes you forget the time. The film supplies a good balance of comedic scenarios, including a hilarious scene in which Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) plays a droll department store attendant who takes way too long to gift wrap a present, and moments of genuine human tenderness, such as when Mark silently confesses how he truly feels about Juliet.
Some of Curtis’ humor falls a little flat, though, including a story about a young man (Kris Marshall) who is convinced that he can go to America and get all the girls he wants simply because he has a “cute British accent.” The idea itself is funny because it’s built around a core of truth, but when the cliché turns out to be true beyond his wildest dreams, the film seems to have wandered off into some bizarre realm of British male fantasy that involves all girls in Wisconsin being both impossibly hot and easy. Yet, so much of the rest of the movie is so funny and touching that you can forgive its missteps, particularly given how ambitious this romantic epic really is.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick