For a lot of us, it’s not really Christmas until we’ve performed that most important of rituals: the annual viewing of Love Actually. It’s hard to believe, but it has been ten years since Richard Curtis’s ambitious movie exploded off the screen and into the hearts of millions of viewers. With its star-studded cast, multiple interconnected plot lines, and iconic scenes—Hugh Grant dancing around No. 10 Downing Street to the exuberant strains of the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump” comes to mind—the film became an instant, if controversial, classic.
…Controversial? Oh, yes. For every person who actually loves Love Actually and can recite the dialogue from memory, there’s another who absolutely reviles it. I myself live in such a House Divided, as I adore the movie beyond reason while my husband rolls his eyes, observes “It should be called Love Impulsively,” and makes himself scarce for the film’s entire two-hour-and-fifteen-minute runtime whenever it’s on.
Much as it pains me to admit it, he and all the other haters out there have a point. For all its many charms, Love Actually does not lack for flaws. All those fat jokes. The subtle but unmistakable strain of anti-Americanism that runs throughout. The wonky timeline. And some of those plotlines—I can’t even. I mean, a rebounding author (Colin Firth)—a writer, for whom works and language and communication are presumably central to his very existence—falls ass over teakettle for a woman (Lúcia Moniz) with whom he can’t hold the simplest conversation. The charismatic Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) dallies with a fresh young underling (Martine McCutcheon)—there’s no way THAT could possibly go wrong. And don’t even get me started on Colin, God of Sex (Kris Marshall), who flies all the way from London to Milwaukee in the dead of winter for one reason and one reason only—and it has nothing to do with cheese curds or beer brats. He is rewarded, of course, by getting laid…and laid…and laid…and laid.
The thing about Love Actually is that there are two movies packed away in there. One is silly, fluffy fantasy. (I have to admit, Colin and his big knob mostly make me laugh.) But the other is serious and sometimes heartbreaking emotional realism. An aging rocker (Bill Nighy) with the world ostensibly at his feet finds himself churning out “solid gold turds” for top-40 radio, cynical and largely alone. A couple’s (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman as Karen and Harry) humdrum domestic routine is threatened when Harry succumbs to the seductive lures of his sex-kitten assistant (Heike Makatsch). Seriously, that scene where the wife unwraps what she thinks will be an expensive necklace and it turns out to be a CD? Brutal, and perfectly played. (Who among us did not want to send Karen a basket of kittens and punch Harry in the nuts after watching that?) A lonely woman (Laura Linney) devotes herself to her mentally ill brother (Michael Fitzgerald), to the point of absolute denial of her own needs. For a feel-good movie, Love Actually sure is depressing.
Strangely, I think that this is a big part of why the movie works as well as it does. As readers of romance, we (well, most of us) appreciate the opportunity to be drawn into a well-crafted fantasy world, where billionaires become obsessed with inexperienced wallflowers and six-foot-five-inch nineteenth-century Highlanders with excellent teeth turn out to be tender and considerate lovers when they deflower untitled bluestockings—whom they later marry, bloodlines be damned—in the cloakroom at the Prince Regent’s ball. But we also live in the real world, where siblings get sick, spouses stray, and all of us get old and sometimes wonder, like Billy Mack, whether we’ve squandered our talents and wasted our lives.
Love Actually gives us both. We get the fantasy: Movie stand-ins (Martin Freeman and Joanna Page) who meet cute while naked and later discover that they’re soulmates, young Sam (Thomas Sangster) racing through Heathrow past heavy post-9/11 security just so he can share an innocent kiss with the ten-year-old love of his life (Olivia Olson), and newlywed Juliet (Keira Knightley) not throat-punching her husband’s best friend (Andrew Lincoln) when he suddenly declares himself to her, a month after the wedding. And then we get the reality: Karen crying, alone in her bedroom, and then pulling herself together so she can get her unsuspecting children to the school’s holiday pageant on time.
“We know what’s real,” the movie seems to be saying. “We know how it really goes. But look at how Jamie looks at Aurelia. See how he learns sufficient Portuguese in a week to ask for her hand in marriage. Observe how the Prime Minister goes door to door in a ‘dodgy’ area looking for his Natalie, and don’t you DARE ask why he doesn’t just look her address up in the employee directory, for Pete’s sake.”
If the movie were nothing but kittens and rainbows and happy endings, it would be unbearable. And it would be forgotten today. But it’s not. Just like a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, a little bit of bitter medicine makes the sugar taste all the sweeter. Richard Curtis and his cast of dozens understood that, and somehow, they made something magical.
I wish for all readers a holiday in which love actually is all around you.
Kate Nagy is Editor at Large of Geek Speak Magazine.