Film Advent Calendar- Day 10: Love Actually (2003)

Glass of prosecco? Check. Bowl of crisps? Check. Extra cheese? Not needed. We’re locked and loaded for the ultimate Christmas cheese-fest – Richard Curtis’s ‘Love Actually’. Cards on the table here – I love this film and watch it every December as a Christmas tradition. Try not to judge me too harshly.
Can I start by confessing this opening scene at the arrivals lounge gets me every time? All those people smiling, hugging, radiating peace and goodwill, it brings a tear to the eye right from the get-go. This is, of course, what Curtis is aiming for, being the master of manipulating emotions. ‘Love actually is all around…’ turns out to be the full title of the film – that’s useful film quiz trivia right there.

Just before we collapse into a quivering mess of emotion, comic relief comes to the rescue in the shape of the wonderful Bill Nighy, as washed-up singer Billy Mack, butchering ‘Love is all around’, ahem, ‘Christmas is all around’ as his comeback single. It wouldn’t be Curtis without a lot of gratuitous swearing in the first five minutes, and Nighy doesn’t disappoint. This is one aspect of the film which makes it definitely worth its 15’ rating.

Vast Cast

Now things gather pace as we start to be introduced to the huge cast – it can be a bit confusing the first time you watch, but having watched it at least fifteen times I could draw a diagram for you. There’s Jamie (Colin Firth) and his beautiful but nameless girlfriend, who cheats on Jamie with his brother while Jamie is at the wedding of his friend Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Juliet (Keira Knightley). Juliet is the subject of a secret crush for Peter’s best friend, Mark. (Andrew ‘Corraallll!’ Lincoln looking very young and clean-shaven pre-TWD.) Mark hides his feelings by pretending not to like her. The wedding is one of those irritating ‘flash-mob’ style ones where most of the audience turn out to be kazoo-playing members of the band rather than actual guests, but Peter and Juliet seem happy enough. At the reception, we meet Colin Frizzell (Kris Marshall) a character I find peculiarly annoying, who appears to be only interested in one thing, and no, it’s not the canapes.

Experiencing the darker side of romantic love is grieving widower Daniel (Liam Neeson), step-father to Sam (Thomas Sangster.) They are supported by the kind but brisk Karen (Emma Thompson). Karen is also the sister of the Prime Minister (Hugh Grant), and the wife of Harry (Alan Rickman), both of whom have their own story lines as we will see. It is a sad commentary on politics today that I actually think Hugh Grant’s PM might be a more appealing option than some of the current members of the government… The new PM arrives at 10 Downing Street to take up office and is immediately attracted to Natalie (Martine McCutcheon) – he can’t get enough of her chocolate Hob Nobs (honestly, this is not a euphemism.) Down to earth Natalie is the source of more comic relief and gratuitous swearing – there are times in this script when I think Richard Curtis has an inverse swear jar and if he doesn’t include a swear word in the dialogue for five minutes he gets fined.
Daniel’s eulogy at his wife’s funeral is immensely moving – Liam Neeson is so good at portraying grief, and it is made even more poignant by knowing the actor himself lost his wife, the lovely Natasha Richardson, in 2009.

All You Need Is Love

Meanwhile, at Peter and Juliet’s wedding reception we are introduced to a new character, Sarah, (Laura Linney) who is talking to Mark, and seems to be much more cheerful here than she is for the rest of the film – did she leave her phone at home for once? Sarah turns out to work for Harry, who calls her into his office to quiz her about her longstanding crush on another co-worker, Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). Call me old-fashioned but if my male boss started quizzing me about my relationships, I’d be tempted to get in touch with HR and see if some refresher training in sexual harassment is available for him, but this was 2003, and times were different then, allegedly… Harry is not the only one in need of training in how to treat co-workers; his PA Mia (Heike McKatsch) should be called ‘#MeToo’ the amount of provocative behaviour she throws at him.

In wonderful contrast we meet acting body doubles John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page) who have to strip naked and simulate various sexual positions for their work, (another reason for the 15 certificate), but have delightfully innocent conversations about traffic and the weather. Eventually, they find romance as well, but it is all very restrained, British, and rather sweet. Also very much in the ‘sweet’ camp, is Jamie, who falls in love with his Portuguese housekeeper Aurelia (Lucia Moniz) despite the language barrier. Again the physical attraction is a strong element in this relationship. A scene where Aurelia strips off and dives into the lake to rescue his manuscript is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the famous Darcy wet shirt incident which Colin Firth will always be remembered for.

Father To Son

Another aspect of love is parental love, and this is shown through Daniel’s difficult but strong relationship with Sam, his 11-year-old stepson, as well as Karen’s close affection for her two children. All roads in this film lead back to romantic love above all, however, and it turns out 11-year-old Sam is in love with a 10-year-old American girl at school. This appears to overshadow his recent loss of his mother, which strains disbelief, but it provides a bit of light relief for Daniel. The price he pays for being the best stepfather ever is having to listen to Sam playing the drums, badly, for days on end. The price Sam plays is having to be Kate Winslet to Daniel’s Leo di Caprio in a cringey tribute to ‘Titanic’ which nobody really needed to see.

Video Killed The Walking Dead Star

Another victim of unrequited love, but old enough to know better, is Mark, whose crush on Juliet is uncovered by the wedding video she insists on watching at his house, which focuses on her to the exclusion of everyone else. Imagine if your wedding video was filmed by the Manson family, and you’ll get the idea. Yes, basically Mark is a stalker. Dude. She’s your best friend’s wife. Just what were you planning to do with the video, anyway?!

Another #MeToo moment comes courtesy of the American President, played by Billy Bob Thornton. (Again, is it wrong that I would prefer him to the current office holder?) The President abuses his power and kisses Natalie, making PM Hugh turn distinctly nationalistic for the next five minutes at least. Brace yourselves. Hugh Grant dancing is up in a minute. Oh God, make it stop. The only consolation is this was probably more embarrassing for him to film than for us to have to watch. Hugh asks his assistant to ‘redistribute’ Natalie – again, I’m wondering what kind of HR policies No 10 Downing Street has that allow him to act like this. This whole film is basically a training film on the need for clear boundaries between line managers and their employees.

Meanwhile, the lovely Jamie and Aurelia have to separate as he is going back to the UK for Christmas. If only they’d had a portable ‘Google translate’ – they could have got together part way through the film. As it is, Aurelia plucks up the courage to kiss him, but foolish Jamie lets her walk away, at least for a little while…

Christmas Is All Around

Billy Mack’s music video is a remake of Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted to Love’ video. Which is nice.

Cut to Harry’s office party, held in Mark’s gallery of saucy artworks (Mark and Mia are friends apparently, although why and how is anyone’s guess!) Here Karl asks Sarah to dance, at long bloody last. Their slow dance is probably the sexiest bit of the entire movie as you can see her ovaries popping at being this close to him after two years’ anticipation. They go to her flat and begin to kiss, and I love her little celebratory jig on the stairs. Her apartment is tidy in just ten seconds – why can’t I live in this magic universe? Cue lots of clothes being removed – then, her phone rings. Now, I know her brother is poorly, with mental health problems, and needs help – but he’s in a secure hospital, it would seem, and is not in the community. I find it very hard to believe he has access to a phone as frequently as he does. I also find it hard to believe that when faced with Karl’s chiselled torso (Karl clearly likes the gym almost as much as he likes Sarah) she doesn’t just turn her phone to silent. That’s what I’d do. I know – I’m a horrible person compared to Sarah, who loves her brother with an enormously self-sacrificing love, as so many carers do. Karl sees he can’t compete and just leaves, which is very sad – he could have put aside the sexy times and gone with her to visit the brother if he really cared about her. And then he could have bought her a new phone and turned off the ringer…

The party also creates shockwaves in Karen’s marriage to Harry. The latter is under the spell of the seductive Mia, who dances with him, and short of stripping naked on the dance floor does everything to make it clear she is available with a capital ‘A’. This gives rise to the wonderful scene in a department store where Curtis ratchets up the tension as Harry buys Mia a necklace from the winner of the slowest salesperson of the year award, played by Rowan Atkinson.

There follows one of my least favourite parts of the film, where Colin Frizzell arrives at a bar in Wisconsin, USA, and ends up in a foursome with the daughter of Jack Bauer and her friends. I’m sorry, I don’t believe an English accent would be enough to prevent them from punching him in the face for being so annoying. I realise the film is playing with the audience’s expectations but in my opinion, it makes the women look stupid in the extreme, and reduces them to the equivalent of blow-up dolls. Badly done, Mr Curtis.

I Wish I Had A River…

Curtis redeems himself with the next scene with Karen opening her Christmas present and realising her husband has given her a CD rather than the two hundred quid gold necklace she knows he has bought. Emma Thompson’s acting here is heart-breaking. The betrayal and sense of hurt, pain and rejection are all instilled in her broken sobs. She hides her grief from her beloved children and husband whose photographs surround her. It is both here, and in the scenes showing Daniel’s grief, where ‘Love Actually’ rises above your average cheesy rom-com. It is not afraid to show the darker sides of love – of loss and pain.

Shortly after this wonderfully emotional scene, we have possibly the cringiest moment in the film – Juliet answering the door only to be met by Mark and a bunch of inordinately large cue-cards silently explaining his unrequited adoration of her. Dude. She’s your best friend’s wife. But then she runs and kisses him on the lips because that’s not at all going to complicate things in future, is it?! Let’s hope Peter is really forgiving if he happens to look out of the window at that moment…

Next Billy Mack turns down partying with celebrities to return to his friend and manager Joe in a very sweet scene. “I realised that Christmas is the time to be with the people you love… You turn out to be the fucking love of my life.” Hugs and macho back-slaps follow because this is not a gay romance – in fact, there are no gay stories in the film as screened, although there was a lesbian story in the original, uncut film. It is a pity this element was lost as I think it would make the film more inclusive – it is very much in a predominantly white, heterosexual upper-middle-class bubble.

Back to Hugh Grant – on opening a Christmas card from Natalie, explaining she is his, he jumps into a car and goes to Wandsworth to try to find her. As a taxpayer I feel incensed that paid public protection officers are accompanying the Prime Minister of Great Britain paying a booty call. Unexpected connection time – turns out siren Mia (the recipient of Harry’s gold necklace) lives next door to Natalie. Lovely Natalie swears like a trooper in front of all her family, of all ages. Of course, she does. This is a Richard Curtis film.

It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas

Now comes the start of the bizarre Christmas concert with children dressed as undersea creatures, where the PM and Natalie go backstage, bumping into his sister Karen and family en route. While children and teachers perform, who sound amazingly professional compared to every school concert I’ve ever been to, the curtain is raised and the PM and Natalie are caught snogging. This being a rom-com the audience clap and cheer rather than laughing and pointing, as normal people would.

In a sad, taut, scene, Karen confronts Harry about the necklace. “I am a classic fool,” says Harry. You’re not wrong, fella, but lust can make fools of the best of us. Fist bump.

The final parts of the film cut between the implausible dash to the airport of Daniel and Sam and the fruition of Jamie and Aurelia’s story. We will draw a veil over the airport stuff – don’t tell Theresa May about the shockingly lax border security on view. Suffice it to say Sam gets a kiss from the love of his life, and goes home to play Pokemon Go. Well, something like that.

Through The Barricades

My favourite scene in the whole film is Jamie’s proposal in broken Portuguese to the lovely Aurelia, who answers in broken English – crossing the barricades between then. Everyone cheers and I confess to getting a little teary at this point, every time! It’s that sense of love overcoming all the odds, which appeals to the old romantic in me.

One month later – we are back at the airport gate to see the key players reunited with one another, and the film ends where it began – the arrivals gate at an airport, with families and lovers kissing and hugging. “God only knows what I’d be without you…” is played, endlessly repeating, and it always makes me sad to think of the people I’ve lost over the years, while happy to remember the love which I still enjoy through friends and family. Sniff.

To Me You Are Perfect

Well, thanks for joining me. The Prosecco is drunk, the crisp bowl is empty, and that’s “Love Actually” done for another year. Merry Christmas to all our lovely readers and bah humbug to anyone who doesn’t have a soft spot for this quintessentially Christmassy film.