|Synopsis||As Christmas draws near, Love Actually follows the lives of multiple people who are all loosely interconnected as they navigate life, love, and their closest relationships.|
|Length||2 hours, 25 minutes|
|Release Date||November 14, 2003|
|Distribution||Universal Pictures (theatrical), Universal Pictures Home Entertainment (DVD/Blu-ray), HBO Max (VOD)|
|Starring||Bill Nighy, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Martin Freeman, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Andrew Lincoln, Keira Knightley, Hugh Grant, Laura Linney, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Alan Rickman, Rowan Atkinson|
Christmas. It’s that time of year when a select handful of films are trotted out for a rewatch. Love Actually has slowly weaselled its way into the elite status of Christmas movies, alongside the likes of Home Alone, It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Muppet Christmas Carol. At least it seems that way amongst my acquaintances, as I always hear someone wishing to watch it again this time of year, or it appears on free-to-air television for the eleventy-seventieth time. Those desires are also closely followed by the groans of the people that will be forced to watch it with them. Out of your typical Christmas films, Love Actually might be the most divisive; some people absolutely adore it while others think it’s utter trash. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so I figured it’s time I weighed in on the debate.
Violence/Scary Images: None. Unless you find ugly Christmas outfits offensive to the eyes.
Language/Crude Humor: Frequent swearing, including multiple droppings of the f-bomb. God’s name is used in vain. There are multiple instances of fat shaming.
Drug/Alcohol References: One character is a celebrity and frequently makes jokes about their illicit drug usage. Characters drink alcohol and smoke socially.
Sexual Content: Some nudity—breasts are seen, and both men and women are shown unclothed, though no genitals are shown. Two characters meet on an adult film set and are seen holding conversations in various simulated sex positions. Two characters are about to have intercourse but are interrupted. It’s suggested that one man has intercourse with three women at once; viewers only see characters strip off their clothes in a distant silhouette. There are several instances of infidelity. A character jokes about watching pornographic material with a friend. One character makes unwanted sexual advances to another. Characters inappropriately talk about sex and sexual relationships within the workplace. Some female characters suggestively spread their legs to tempt their male counterparts. A character strips live on television. Sexually-themed artworks are seen in the background in one scene.
Spiritual Content: The film is set during the weeks before Christmas; the holiday is mentioned frequently. Children perform in a nativity play, although the interpretation is incredibly loose for comedic effect.
Other Negative Content: Inappropriate demeanour is frequently seen within workplace situations. One character encourages another to break border security laws. One character displays stalker-ish behaviour and films another with ill intentions. One romance is questionable as to whether it’s age appropriate.
Positive Content: The film tries to operate as a celebration of the various forms of love seen within society, from romantic pairings to platonic friendships and familial bonds. It treats Christmas as a time of unabashed love.
When it comes to your standard genres of film, it’s the horror genre which draws the most worry from Christians. It’s something I also approach with caution and content needs to be viewed with discretion, although most movies in the category are the result of a director or screenwriter desiring to explore, grapple or ask questions about the more serious side of the human experience within a realm of cinema that offers endless creativity. To be completely honest, I feel it’s the romance genre which should draw more scrutiny. Look past the lovey-dovey emotions, and there can be a lot of toxic messaging. To be fair, most romance films feature flawed people, which requires some leeway in judgement as the characters learn the hard way from the awkward outcome of events, but ultimately some stories support a moral which isn’t always healthy.
I’ve recently been following a great YouTube channel called Cinema Therapy, where two men—a filmmaker and a therapist—analyse films, typically those in the romance genre. It’s very wholesome. Their breakdown and ranking of the relationships within Love Actually (which was re-released today, funnily enough) is what brought me back to this film. I’ve always been rather indifferent; I haven’t found myself in either the love it or hate it camps in the past. Though Cinema Therapy’s discussion did make me question as to whether Love Actually was yet another case of The Notebook—a very popular film with extremely questionable morals and messaging.
To quote Cinema Therapy, “it’s a mixed bag”. For those that haven’t seen it, Love Actually is a collection of vignettes; short stories centralising around the theme of love (which is very loose in terms of interpretation as it includes familial and platonic bonds). Most people count nine main relationships explored throughout the narrative, though it can expand to more, making Love Actually one of the more daring anthologies out there (I find most movies just stick to three).
Anthology style movies are a difficult narrative beast to master, as there are naturally going to be stronger and weaker storylines contained within the collection, leaving audiences more invested in some than with others. Critically acclaimed films such as Amores Perros and Requiem for a Dream may have kickstarted the trend in the early 2000s, though it’s the success of Love Actually which really invigorated the format again, causing a number of copycat films within the genre to follow.
It’s difficult to pinpoint why Love Actually succeeded when others failed. It might be because the stories are fairly varied—not all of them result in a happy ending. Though for those that do, Love Actually manages to capture audiences with its palpable sense of charm, emotionally soaring to the highest of highs as characters attempt to pull off grand gestures that stereotypically are only seen in romance films. The movie knows it’s cliché but still loves to lean into it, and it works. The music helps as well, though most of the soundtrack is filled with Christmas songs.
That’s another aspect which may have contributed to Love Actually’s appeal—it’s not just a romance film but also a Christmas movie, so it draws in crowds from two fronts. It’s probably the film’s most inspired tactic, at least from a marketing perspective. When the film opens, it introduces its central theme and message—that if we were to truly look around ourselves, we’d find that love, actually is all around. The second scene then tries to connect the idea of love with the holiday of Christmas; it’s a day all about love, that presents one of the few moments of the year where people can be forgiven for speaking awkward truths particularly when it concerns their romantic feelings. I don’t know about you, but as a Christian, I feel this take on the holiday doesn’t completely ring true, although it’s a nice warm and fuzzy secular approach to the day. The premise is more akin to Valentine’s Day as opposed to Christmas (and ironically 2010s Valentine’s Day is one of Love Actually’s copycat films). But obviously that Christmas cheer and the open warmth of the season pairs well with the idea of people finding love, making this film a potent combination.
From a screenwriting perspective, setting these stories in the weeks leading up to Christmas does unify all of the narratives, essentially creating a ticking time bomb as the day approaches. By glorifying the day in this way, it ups the stakes, as characters feel if they don’t achieve what their hearts desire they would miss out on an important opportunity. There’s also a more literal connection between each story, as each character is somehow in a social circle involving at least one other character from an adjacent narrative, making it feel as though—to prove the film’s premise that love is everywhere—it has zoomed in on one branch or microcosm of humanity with its endless six degrees of separation, highlighting that everyone is having some sort of relationship with someone else. Years ago, on my second or third watch of this film, it was fun to try and keep track of how every character knew one another, as though mastering this knowledge would unlock a deeper understanding of the overall message of this film. It doesn’t. Most are simply friends of the newlyweds, or if they’re not related, are otherwise workmates. It’s an intriguing challenge to track it, but it’s ultimately not very fulfilling.
That’s because the film doesn’t really have much to say at all. Well, it does, but it doesn’t. The comment, “Love, actually is all around” is as innocuous as observing that humans are relational beings, but it doesn’t entice deeper thought or present an opinion on such a statement, effectively saying nothing. The nine main examples it picks are sometimes conflicting in trajectory and outcome, so the overarching theme of the entire film has to be vague in order to have a hope in linking it all together as a single entity. So the onus is more on the audience to look more deeply into each vignette and find meaning within those individual stories in order to really unpack what the film is trying to say. Yet there’s a runtime issue present—we only spend roughly fifteen minutes with each one, meaning that with the romantic relationships in particular, we’re only seeing each couple interact twice before they fall in love. The whole film is a tease. We never spend enough time to really dig into deeper territory, making it all very surface level, although the stronger narratives do rise to the top as a result as they demand more attention. Those ones could have been feature length films on their own if they were really fleshed out, but their condensed versions are conflict-riddled enough to give the film enough juice to keep its momentum.
Speaking of which, not enough praise is given to this film’s editing. As the film jumps from one relationship to another, it always tends to flow. As the stronger, more complex stories take over, there are times when it feels like the film has dropped a storyline completely, but sure enough it loops back around to them as soon as the feeling sinks in.
It helps that Love Actually makes the most of every moment. I can still hear my drama teacher cry out from the sidelines, “Accept and extend!” For an example of this, we need to look no further than Love Actually’s director and screenwriter, Richard Curtis, and his previous work. With Mr. Bean, the famous mimed character doesn’t simply get changed into his swimmers at the beach like any normal person. No, no! This relatively simple outfit change is done in the most creative way possible, with contortion, comedic conflict developments, and costume trickery. Considering Curtis has worked extensively with Rowan Atkinson on both the Blackadder and Mr. Bean series, the actor’s small appearance in Love Actually should come as no surprise as he complicates another character’s relatively easy little task to great effect. As Atkinson pompously adds “flourish”, it’s almost a comment on the rest of the film, where those little additions such as a snide but comedic comment, a brief interlude of Kate and Leo, or the ridiculousness of an octopus costume, whilst seemingly unnecessary, help to flavour and enliven every scene.
Rowan Atkinson is of course just one big name of many. The film is littered with one of the most prestigious and impressive cast lists committed to screen. Some of the stories may be weak, but the acting is not. Each actor brings their game even if their individual time on set is short. Such a line up is becoming more common in cinema, but few films pull it off as well as Love Actually.
That star power also possibly helps to broaden the film’s target demographic. Movies in the romance genre are typically geared more towards female audiences, with some not even bothering to try and appeal to the male half of the population (which only furthers the stereotype even more). Yet instead of portraying an old-timey lengthy narrative where a woman reads letters and commits social faux pas, here is Love Actually filled with famous actors, presenting a nice smorgasbord of stories short enough for those with the worst attention spans, where half of them explore more male-oriented dynamics. Basically, if you haven’t watched this movie and you’re groaning about being dragged into seeing it, there are certainly worse ones in the genre. Love Actually fires in multiple directions, so it’s bound to entertain everyone in at least some aspect.
However, broadening that appeal does seem to have come at a price. Generally speaking, comedic films that wish to target male demographics tend to be higher in raunchy humour and nudity. Love Actually is surprisingly littered with crassness and vulgarity. Two characters swear as it’s their personality trait, so it’s a little more understandable as it’s integral to the plot, but a lot of the time a f-bomb or uncouth bit of dialogue is dropped as a way of creating a laugh through shock value. There’s also an uncomfortable amount of fat shaming present which has not aged well. Yet it’s the film’s approach to nudity—and women—which is the aspect that has aged the worst. Gratuitous nudity or sexualised moments are done for a gag, although the joke has long since been lost with time. There’s one scene where a character stands in front of an enormous artwork that’s a close up on breasts with Santa hats covering the nipples. Why? What does it add to the film? It feels like one of the film’s “flourishes” where it’s trying to make the most of the moment, but in this particular instance it feels horribly dated. Indeed, a lot of the film’s depiction of women in sexually compromised or objectified positions, whilst trying to be comedic, now seems cringe-worthy instead. These two factors, the swearing and the nudity, might be enough to sink some viewers’ entire opinion of the film. For others, the film’s strengths may still shine through.
In keeping with tradition of most articles concerning this film, it’s time to take a deeper dive into each of the relationships featured in Love Actually to really nut out what exactly are the best parts, and where things go completely awry. Light spoilers ahead.
Let’s start with what many consider to be the worst storyline: Colin (Kris Marshall) and his trip to America. It’s the most underdeveloped narrative in the entire film, practically absent from the second act, mostly only popping up at the beginning and end of the movie. Yet it’s pointless to judge it too harshly for being shallow as it’s clear the entire premise is meant to be viewed as a joke, heavily pulling inspiration from American Pie and spoofing that hyper sexualised subgenre. No, seriously, they even get Shannon Elizabeth who played Nadia, “the sexy one” from American Pie. It’s very tongue-in-cheek in its delivery, but even so, this is one skit that does nothing but drag the rest of the film down. The joke centers around the objectification of women, and has nothing of value to say, nor does it have much to do with the film’s overarching theme.
Another couple that are played for laughs are John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page). Meeting on an adult film set, the comedy comes in the unlikely contrast between their bodies and minds, where the two extras enjoy conversing with each other about things such as the weather and traffic, whilst in highly personal and sexual positions. It’s a shame, as it’s one of the film’s better romances; it pushes away lust and sex and instead promotes the wonderfulness of the compatibility of friendship and the attractiveness of complimentary personalities. Unfortunately the film doesn’t give the relationship and its corresponding message the seriousness it deserves, drowning it under the weight of its simplistic joke.
One relationship that may have been better off being played for laughs but unfortunately is taken too seriously, is that of Mark (Andrew Lincoln) and his Juliet (Keira Knightley). The topic of unrequited love is severely underexplored in cinema, but Love Actually’s treatment of it is lacking finesse and maturity. It commits a sin that’s very common in the romance genre, where it romanticises a situation that would be rather creepy in real life, where one character acts unrealistically to another’s blatant disrespect of boundaries. This is the tale that is the film’s most problematic, because the film’s tone essentially endorses this behaviour. It doesn’t help that it also happens to contain the movie’s most iconic moment.
The bond between Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) and his manager, Joe, (Gregor Fisher) is one that straddles the boundary between comedy and drama. The problem with the portrayal of this friendship is that the film spends more time focussing on Billy’s shenanigans in getting his horrible Christmas song to the top of the charts, as opposed to developing the viewer’s understanding of how these two characters relate to each other. As a result, it feels like the establishment and payoff all occurs in a single scene. It’s still one of the more enjoyable storylines mainly because Bill Nighy is having a blast in his role. It also shares an important message regarding love—recognising those loyal and long-standing platonic relationships in our lives is equally as crucial as honouring romantic ones. Saying “I love you” is not exclusive to romantic partners. There’s room for more films to depict deep male friendships, though Love Actually doesn’t invest enough time to really be much of a pioneer in this area, and this wholesome relationship is easily obscured by its surrounding comedy.
When I first watched this film years and years ago, I really hated the story surrounding Sam’s crush on Joanna (Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Olivia Olson respectively). Encouraging children to date just always felt creepy and inappropriate, and I dislike seeing it in most movies unless it’s trying to make a point. Now that I’m older, I realise this storyline is more about two grieving people finding a way to bond, where Sam’s stepfather, Daniel (Liam Neeson), is using his son’s obsession to connect with him on a deeper level, while also allowing the pair to come to terms with the idea of transitioning to a new life stage that may or may not include new people to love. From this perspective it’s a touching story, one that could have survived as a feature length narrative as there are richer emotions at play here. The third act is very cliché for this genre, but it still provides that ever-warming message to follow your heart.
Another story with a fluffy, over the top third act is Jamie’s romance with Aurelia (Colin Firth and Lúcia Moniz). This one is sweet but very gimmicky. It feels very overt or symbolic with its moral, where love is more than words, can overcome the barriers of language, etc. It’s not well developed due to the runtime, as the characters seem to fall for each other very easily. In the end it’s a wholesome piece though not very realistic.
One pairing that does take on a realistic dilemma is Sarah (Laura Linney) and Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). I actually completely forgot about this storyline until this recent rewatch. From a screenwriting perspective it is weak. The audience is told about the nature of Sarah’s paralysing crush through an inappropriate workplace conversation (there are a lot of discussions in this film that would get people fired in the real world), failing the number one script rule of “show don’t tell”. It might be the nature of the beast due to how this story ends, but it also feels like it’s dumped unceremoniously and forgotten since it doesn’t continue into the film’s third act. However, the narrative presented is very real and goes into the sacrifices those in caretaker roles can subconsciously bear. To deepen this one, it would have been nice to see more of Sarah’s love for her brother, or figuring out how to place boundaries on one relationship for another. It’s the story that provides a delicate pause and provokes some thought, though the film feels keen to toss it aside in favour of other romances.
Every time I’ve watched the film, it’s Natalie (Martine McCutcheon) and David’s (Hugh Grant) romance which takes me on the biggest emotional roller-coaster. Out of all the stories in the film, this one is the most traditional for the genre, similar to all those “prince falling for a common girl” narratives, although modernised to be the Prime Minister instead. There’s an obvious power imbalance present in this one, and like some of the others, it also has to navigate the difficulties of pursuing romance within the workplace. It manages to tackle these challenges in a healthy fashion, and it’s charming to see two characters no matter their status getting giddy about love. The nature of the relationship does inevitably bring up Monica Lewinski vibes, making it seem all too much on the nose when the couples’ main conflict is introduced, but ultimately this one feels like a crowd-pleasing classic romance that fits in well with the film’s overall theme.
Lastly is the film’s most loathed story, although it’s due to being fantastically performed and written: Harry and Karen (Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson). Drama is defined by conflict, and this story the most compelling in that department. It’s the powerhouse of the film as it contains the closest the movie has to an antagonist. The storytelling is mature, the stakes are weighty, and its conclusion is not only well-written, subtle and sadly relatable to many, but it also covers a subject that isn’t commonly addressed in cinema. Where Love Actually takes a misstep in romanticising Mark and Juliet’s affections, here it rightly judges a scenario which is often horribly endorsed by other films in the genre. It’s the story fans love to hate, but it’s for the best reasons and the film would be a hollow, twee shell without its inclusion.
I’m still indecisive about this film. After writing all this out, it’s clear that most of the stories contained within Love Actually are either underdeveloped or feature terrible lessons. From an intellectual standpoint, I can perfectly understand why people hate this film and think it’s garbage. But… it just has so much heart! It contains that stroke of movie magic that can’t be manufactured. It’s a mess of a film, but it’s an enjoyable hodgepodge that has something for everyone.
+ It's charming
+ Fantastic ensemble cast
+ Catchy soundtrack that captures all that Christmas cheer
+ Some relationship dynamics are on the rarer side of cinema
+ Narratively diverse—there's a story for everyone
+ Makes the most of its moments
+ Better than most in the genre
- Lots of swearing
- Odd inclusion of fat jokes
- Sexualisation and objectification of women hasn't aged well
- Lost of stories means not a lot of development
- Some toxic messaging
- Doesn't have much to say
- Kiddie romance
The Bottom Line
Love Actually is flawed in many ways, but it's saved by its varied collection of narratives with cross-demographic appeal, and a contagious spirit of love and Christmas joy.