Neither original romantic comedies or affecting Christmas films are easy to come by these days. Unless they are the classics, of course. And by “classics” I mean the ones we can’t do without, the (mostly) black-and-white gems that set the standard. But once in a while a new movie emerges that has some of those same qualities, that one enjoys revisiting year after year. For me Richard Curtis’ Love Actually (2003) is one of them – a modern-day Christmas movie that has joined my yearly “must” list despite its being replete with romcom and Christmas movie clichés.
Love Actually is Richard Curtis‘ directorial debut. Having penned Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999) and Bridget Jones Diary (2001), Curtis is certainly no stranger to the successful romantic comedy formula and uses the same kind of humor laced with heart that we see in those other movies in this one. Love Actually is..actually…so jam-packed and long that I don’t want to enjoy it, but I do. Year after year.
It’s five weeks until Christmas in London when the stories featured in Love Actually kick off – several parallel and intertwined storylines about people in varying stages of love – romantic, familial, unexpected, forbidden, illicit and otherwise. A widower trying to get back in the dating game, a “comfortably” married couple, newlyweds, first love, love of family, friendship, and on and on. All of the stories are beautifully written and woven together by Curtis.
As the weeks pass by we see the lives and loves grow, dissipate or find themselves enhanced by the joys of Christmas as such things happen this time of year. A memorable tapestry of music, wonderful songs hand-picked by the director himself sets the backdrop to an enjoyable 135 minutes.
“Love is everywhere”
Much of the reason why Love Actually is so enjoyable is that it features a great ensemble cast that delivers deeply affecting and hilariously funny performances. Many of them are established romantic comedy players. Among these are standouts Hugh Grant, Bill Nighy, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth and Laura Linney. (Click on the following image for the complete cast list.)
As briefly mentioned above there is heartbreak and poignancy in Love Actually with Emma Thompson and Laura Linney particularly effective in delivering heartbreaking scenes that I can’t watch without sobbing. Thompson plays Karen, a middle-aged wife and mother whose suspicions that her husband (Alan Rickman) is cheating on her are confirmed on Christmas. Karen inadvertently finds a necklace in her husband’s jacket pocket, assuming it is a gift for her. But on Christmas when she opens his gift heartbreak is immediate when she sees a Joni Mitchell CD instead of the necklace. Mitchell is Karen’s favorite singer and upon seeing the CD and realizing her husband had bought the necklace for another woman, she makes an excuse to step out of the room, away from her husband and children for a moment. As she does so we hear Mitchell’s latest recording/rendition of her classic, “Both Sides Now,” a very moving song, a mature, wise woman singing words with such meaning, adding immeasurably to Emma Thompson’s poignant few moments. And it doesn’t help that we also see images of the other woman putting on the necklace, pictures of the children, of her and her husband in an embrace. Phew – this hurts. A life changed in an instance.
“I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take, and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all”
In a parallel story Laura Linney plays Sarah, a woman who cannot commit to love due to family obligations – to say it simply – despite her deep loneliness. Finally, the man she’s been in love with for some time pays attention to her and they end up in her apartment, both willing to consummate the relationship. But Sarah’s phone rings and she has to answer. And that’s that – she makes her choice and the promise of the happiness she so longed for disappears. It’s a heartbreaker as we see Sarah retreat back into her shell, a sort of self-imposed exile.
Anyway, there is one interesting story after another – a bit for everyone enhanced by the great pace maintained throughout. Liam Neeson plays a recent widower whose scenes with his young stepson are beautifully written. Hugh Grant – who I can’t help but like because he’s so darn charming despite being exactly the same in every movie I’ve ever seen him in – plays the British Prime Minister who falls for a commoner. Anyway – it’s just lots of fun. If there is one fault in Love Actually it is the story starring Colin Firth I’m sorry to say. Firth plays a writer who falls in love with a Portuguese girl and although he’s always a pleasure to watch his story seems superfluous.
And then we have laughs and there there are plenty to go around with the hearty ones provided by Bill Nighy who plays aging rock star Billy Mack.
Billy Mack is the bad granddad of rock-n-roll who records what may possibly be the world’s worst Christmas song, “Love Is All Around” (not related to the classic theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show). Mack has a proclivity for being inappropriate, saying exactly what’s on his mind at every opportunity. Like this, “Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don’t buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them for free!” Nighy is pretty great in everything I’ve seen him in and this is no exception. Love Actually also has the added bonus of two cameos by Rowan Atkinson, best known for portraying the clumsy, Mr. Bean.
Love Actually ends with an epilogue that takes place a month later – after Christmas – when we see where the characters are in their relationships. A convergence of affection leaves us in a happy place – just the kind of thing we want for Christmas. This is not a perfect film by any means. In fact the reviews of the movie in 2003 were less than stellar. But for my money it’s definitely worth a look, a fun addition to anyone’s list of worthwhile holiday fare.