“In Defence of Love Actually” are five words I never thought we’d see on Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second. As ’tis the season Hope Lies newest contributor, Damon Carter tells us why it’s time for Richard Curtis’ tale of chance and circumstance to be reevaluated. Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments section below.
Never judge a book by its cover. It’s a wise adage but one that doesn’t seem to apply to cinema. Let’s be honest, many Hollywood executives want us to do just that with the almost redundant release of posters, trailers (that pretty much tell you what will happen in all three acts) and taglines that could have been written on the back of a cigarette packet. Marketing teams want us to know exactly what’s going to happen in a film before we’ve even seen it and as such we’re all smarting as an audience. In 2003 a cinema poster appeared at the back of my local cinema that barely raised an eyebrow and seemed quite frankly like a load of old rubbish. It was called Love Actually. Many reviews of the film reflected what I had presumed the film would be like. However when I got round to watching it, it seemed clear that the film had been if not misunderstood, then definitely harshly dealt with. Hidden amongst the over-sentimentality, middle class London Christmas setting was a film trying to give an original take on the theme of love.
Don’t get me wrong. Love Actually is not a great film and really only requires to be watched at one time of year. It is a film that is easy to love and despise for entirely parallel reasons. But to see its name lazily spread into many “worst Christmas film ever” lists is something of an issue for me. Is this film really as sickening as the commercially driven Jingle All The Way where the crux of the film is all about a child desperately wanting a toy? I would argue not. So why do the critics hate it so much?
“The most grotesque and sick manipulation of a cinema audience’s feelings that I’ve ever seen since Leni von Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.” Will Self
One of the things that let Love Actually down is its title. It reeks of middle class romanticism and isn’t really helped by the cast. Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley. Surely Ray Winstone could have been spliced into Alan Rickman’s’ MD of a design agency. And maybe Danny Dyer would have been perfect to replace Carl (who clearly just walked in from a Jean Paul Gaultier fragrance advert). Ridiculous choices I know but the film may well have been served better with a more humble cast. But that isn’t to say there aren’t strong performances here. Emma Thompson’s portrayal of a woman who stands alone in her bedroom quietly after she realises there is a good chance her husband is having an affair is beautifully underplayed.
Also, all of the hallmarks of Romantic comedy crimes are present here. The big orchestral finish with an unnecessary rush to get somewhere (the airport/the restaurant). The unnecessary dance scene (Hugh Grant, hang your head), romantic pairings with little chemistry and Dido on the soundtrack. So on the face of it Love Actually is a terrible film isn’t it? No. Actually.
Scratch beneath the surface and Richard Curtis (in his first directorial role) has crafted a film that has original takes on the most popular of all cinematic themes. Love Actually is not really about romance. The central theme is “Love” and what that means to different characters. A man loves a woman he knows he can never have, an ageing rock star’s love for his manager, a sisters love for her brother, a long-term love that is on the rocks, a love lost, and of course a new love. These stories don’t all play out traditionally either. Sarah longs to be with Carl but is so committed to the love of her mentally ill brother that she is willing to let Carl go. Jamie and Aurelia fall for each other despite the barrier of language. Karen stands by helplessly as her husband starts to have desires on his young glamorous assistant but the love for her family keeps her from falling apart. These are hardly groundbreaking devices but they are well thought out and feel possible and emotional enough for the audience to feel something important is at stake. But realism isn’t a chief concern of the film as many other story lines and characters are quite clearly of the movies.
Curtis has not forgotten that he has a talent for comedy. This is the man that brought his writing skills to us with sitcom greats in Blackadder and The Vicar of Dibley and the triumph of Four weddings and a Funeral and the slightly weaker Notting Hill. These are notable mentions as it shows his range of comedy being from cynically devious to heartfelt. Billy Mack is a classic Curtis creation with Bill Nighy playing his part to perfection and illicit a laugh every time he is on screen, my particular favourite being his interview on The Ant or Dec Show. Colin has less to do other than trying to get laid, but it’s still funny watching Kris Marshall performance as his character blunders his way through chat up lines. For example he attempts to impress a woman he is working with at a party by criticising the food only to discover she is the chef. Similarly the romance that blossoms between body doubles John and Judy is equally funny as they desperately try and connect with each other whilst simulating sex. But the biggest joke (and it is strange so many critics have used this as a reason as to why the film is poor) is surely the casting of Hugh Grant as the prime minister. Richard Curtis has quite clearly aiming for a Tony Blair parody and nails it to perfection. On the face of it, Hugh Grant seems like a pretty nice guy so why wouldn’t we want a guy who smiles a lot and bumbles his way through the office and stands up to the pesky Americans being in charge? But it seems the joke was lost on many people. We can hardly conceive that a real prime minister could have an iota of charisma and we’re not expected to take this prime minister seriously. In one warm scene David knocks on doors to find the girl he loves, he ends up carol singing to a group of young girls, wishing an old lady happy Christmas and having the time to be self deprecating to a woman. We know this would never happen which is why it all the more enjoyable.
Curtis also knows his genre’s well and knows that the only time of year that he could get away with all this tenderness is Christmas. Christmas films are their own genre and as such abide by their own rules. Romanticism or gush (depending on which side of the fence you sit) is a by product of Christmas films and dare I say some of the greatest. So we can forgive some of the weaker storylines because at the crux of it their intentions are honest. For example I didn’t really care too much for the story of Daniel’s stepson being in love plot but I accepted it for what it was, a boy and his stepdad connecting and seeking happiness after their tragic loss. Additionally, at this time of year we should be thankful for what we have. All the stories in Love Actually are condensed to sensible length and become almost vignettes. In contrast, a Hollywood executive would have probably tried to squeeze several films from the stories given here but thankfully we have them all in one which I would argue is a strength of this film.
Love Actually is the cinematic equivalent of a Greatest Christmas collection CD. Undoubtedly there will be some tracks that you will skip over as you feel you’ve heard them so often. But some of them you can’t help but listen to and you know you’ll do it again the following Christmas. Love Actually will never scale the heights of Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece Magnolia or Robert Altman’s epic Short Cuts but those are very different films with very different messages. People that complain “Christmas is a big con” will undoubtedly hate this film. However sat on their own at Christmas as they wait for the top twenty depressing films of all time marathon to appear on BBC Four, they’ll start flicking the channels and Love Actually might just appear on the television. It might only be for five minutes but they’ll sit and watch it. They might start to realise it isn’t actually that bad.