Last week, I was sitting in a room talking with some people about Christmas movies. No one had seen Love Actually. Internal stunned silence on my part. Later, in another setting, I was chatting with several people who hailed it as their favorite Christmas flick.
To me, it’s a classic, Christmas or otherwise. If I’m in a melancholic mood in July, I’ll put this on to lift my spirits. It’s a must-watch Christmas classic for me, always saved for an evening close to Christmas or the end/beginning of the year.
Love Actually marked the directorial debut of Richard Curtis, who also wrote the screenplay. His most recent work was the 2013 romantic comedy About Time. Previous writing credits include films like Notting Hill and Four Weddings and Funeral.
Love isn’t always pretty. Sometimes it’s rather raw. Likewise, this movie is full of imperfection. Therein lies its beauty. It’s an exploration of love in all its splendor, glory, messiness and vulnerability.
It struck a chord somewhere. On a $45 million budget it had a return of $250 million at the box office.
Christmas is like an incidental background character in Love Actually. It’s not a story about Christmas. It’s about love, in its many forms:
The love that grows between two people who don’t speak the same language. Instead, their love grows based on one another’s actions and behavior;
The love Sarah (Laura Linney) has as sister and caregiver for her mentally disturbed brother who is hospitalized in a psychiatric ward. Sarah lets her own potential relationship with a man flounder so she can be with her brother on Christmas Eve;
The puppy love of a young boy, nurtured by his stepfather who grieves the loss of his wife.
Kam Williams, writing in Princeton’s Kam’s Kapsules, noted that Love Actually is nuttier than Notting Hill and even more intricate than Four Weddings and a Funeral.
“My only regrets are that Richard Curtis waited so long to make his first movie and that I’m only allowed to award this moving comic masterpiece four stars,” said Williams.
Before going further, I have to note a caution: this movie is absolutely not appropriate for children or young teens. Love Actually is R-rated for mature themes, graphic sexuality and profane language. However, none of it feels gratuitous. But if nudity or the language of the street bother you in any way, be forewarned.
Not everyone shares my appreciation of the movie. It was panned by many critics, but that only proved to me that most critics are cranky insensitive old dudes lacking love in their own lives.
There’s an innocence about much of this flick, despite wrongdoings like infidelity lurking in many dark corners.
The movie opens with the voice of Hugh Grant, who turns out to be the Prime Minister of England, over images of arrivals at Heathrow Airport.
“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there: fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge; they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”
Early in the movie, we move to a domestic scene: a mom, Karen (Emma Thompson), talks to her daughter, Daisy (Lulu Popplewell), in the kitchen.
Mom: So what’s this big news, then?
Daisy: [excited] We’ve been given our parts in the Nativity play. And I’m the lobster.
Karen: The lobster?
Karen: In the Nativity play?
Daisy: [beaming] Yeah, *first* lobster.
Karen: There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?
From that point, we know that silliness will be an essential component of this story.
With its theme of love in all its confusing, betraying, endearing, innocent, unrequited, pure and impure forms, Love Actually explores struggles in relationships. Intimacy, lust, playfulness, tenderness and unselfish devotion are all present.
The cast is superb. Liam Neeson plays the widowed stepfather Daniel, whose stepson Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) pines over a love interest. Hugh Grant is Prime Minister of Britain. Billy Bob Thornton is the bullying President of the USA. Martin Freeman–you know, Bilbo Baggins–is a shy porn actor. Emma Thompson plays Karen, the wife of adulterous Alan Rickman. You’ll also see Claudia Schiffer and Rowan Atkinson (seriously).
The highlight and most beautiful love in the film is that which blossoms between English-speaking Jamie (Colin Firth) and Portuguese-speaking Aurelia (Lucia Moniz). After Jamie is stilted by his girlfriend who was having an affair with his brother, Jamie, a writer, heads to a summer rental home in Portugal to complete his novel. Aurelia is hired as the housekeeper. Some shared silly experiences and a near-disastrous loss of Jamie’s novel builds an intimacy between them, despite the lack of shared language.
The nine stories build to a wild denouement.
In the Jamie/Aurelia vignette, after returning to England, Jamie takes Portuguese language classes. Unknown to him, Aurelia studies English. At Christmas, Jamie flies from London to Portugal and, after, of course, chaos, finds Aurelia in her waitress job in a restaurant. There, he proposes in front of most of the village.
Jamie speaks in Portuguese as English subtitles appear on the screen: “Beautiful Aurela, I’ve come here with a view to asking you to marriage me. I know I seems an insane person because I hardly know you, but sometimes things are so transparency they don’t need evidential proof. And I will inhabit here or you can inhabit with me in England. Of course, I don’t expecting to you be as foolish as me and of courses….but it’s Christmas and I just wanted to check.”
Aurelia, in English: “Thank you, that will be nice. Yes is being my answer. Easy question. Yes, of course.
Jamie: “You learned English.”
Aurelia: “Just in cases.”
Another highlight is the role of Bill Nighy, who plays Billy Mack, an ex-heroin addict/rock star making a comeback with a sappy Christmas song. After his song reaches number one on the charts, Billy Mack is wrapped up in a whirlwind that includes a party at the home of Elton John. It doesn’t take long for him to realize that the person he’s closest to and who has been his support is his manager Joe, played by Gregor Fisher. Billy leaves the party and goes to Joe’s house to spend Christmas with him.
Despite the rawness, another touching scene is a discussion between Daniel and stepson Sam about telling someone you love her.
Daniel: Sam, you’ve got nothin’ to lose, and you’ll always regret it if you don’t! I never told your mom enough. I should have told her every day because she was perfect every day. You’ve seen the films, kiddo. It ain’t over ’til its over.
Sam: Okay, Dad. Let’s do it. Let’s go get the shit kicked out of us by love.
The movie ends back at Heathrow Airport a month after Christmas, with several of the characters reuniting. There are also hundreds of others, full or love and hugs, greeting one another.
After watching the movie, make sure to check out the delete scenes. There are some hilarious zingers in there.
Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin