As implied by the title, Richard Curtis’ Love Actually is a film about love. In an age characterised by cynicism, terrorism and tragedy, this is an unashamedly upbeat romantic comedy – it proclaims that even in the direst of circumstances, love is all around, and, if we’re unable to see it, it’s because we’re not looking. This sentiment, which constitutes the film’s core, may seem overly cloying and mushy, but writer-director Curtis is so earnest in upholding the notion that it comes across as genuinely touching. Like most comedies featuring such a sizable ensemble cast,Love Actually is a bit bloated and overstuffed. Nonetheless, this is an endearing odyssey into the most essential human emotion, and it’s destined to leave you warm and fuzzy inside. Containing a cast of more than twenty main characters who feature in separate yet intertwining stories, Love Actually could be described as a Robert Altman film on Prozac and Viagra.
Playing out as a string of short vignettes, the movie concerns a group of semi-linked Londoners during the lead-up to Christmas. These stories are about love in all of its multiple forms and guises: love between siblings, love between parents and children, love between spouses, puppy love, platonic love, unrequited love, and sexual/romantic love. There are characters falling in love and characters falling out of love. Some characters are with the right people, and some are with the wrong people. Some are looking to have an affair while others are in a period of mourning. In terms of characters, there’s the new Prime Minister (Grant) who cannot express his feelings for his new personal assistant, as well as a photographer in love with his best friend’s new wife, a pair of naked movie stand-ins who grow closer while assuming coital positions, and a burnt-out rock star named Billy Mack (Nighy) who has released a new single. Yet, the content is not limited to these aforementioned stories – there’s much, much more within.
The film’s core message – that love is everywhere but not as newsworthy as hate or destruction – is manifested in the picture’s bookend which takes place at the airport and shows the arrival gate full of anonymous smiles, hugs and kisses. After all, what’s more symbolic than the inherent rom-com cliché of the airport? Love Actually marks the directorial debut of Richard Curtis, who’s no stranger to success. He was responsible for such TV shows as Blackadder, Mr. Bean and The Vicar of Dibley. His big-screen writing credits include Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary. As viewers of Curtis’ prior works should be aware of, the filmmaker ably tempers romanticism with comedy. Love Actually therefore provides a welcome amount of comedic scenarios – there’s a hilarious scene in which Rowan Atkinson plays a department store attendant, and the ubiquitous presence of Billy Mack; the outspoken, addled and often offensive rock star who proves to be his publicist’s worst nightmare due to the fact that he never hesitates to proclaim that his new single is commercial shit. Love Actually is frequently pleasant and often downright hilarious.
The problem with Love Actually is that there’s just too much here, and all the tales are therefore reduced to mere stocking stuffers with barely sketched characters and situations. The stories are easy to follow, but it’s difficult to genuinely care about the various protagonists; each of which were allotted approximately 8 minutes of screen-time (apparently more than 60 minutes of footage was cut to get the movie down to acceptable release length). Curtis could have crafted a stronger package by excising a few plotlines, or simply using the concept for a television series instead. Furthermore, some of the stories are resolved in a true-to-life manner, while others are fantasy. The key offender in this department is a tale concerning a libidinous chum who’s convinced he’ll score tonnes of women in America due to his “cute British accent”. The concept itself is amusing because it’s built around a core of truth, but when the cliché turns out to be true beyond his wildest dreams, Curtis appears to have wandered off into a bizarre realm of British male fantasy. The fantastical elements could be accepted as part of the film’s overall optimism, but one gets the sense that Curtis keeps changing the rules, with half the picture acknowledging the untidiness of real life and the other half operating more along the lines of wish fulfilment.
For all intents and purposes, Love Actually probably shouldn’t work – it has too many characters and too many stories. Despite this, it does work, and it works smashingly; dissecting love, lust and loss with startling precision while scoring a healthy mix of laughs and tears at every turn. While there’s an overabundance of characters, every one of them is worth spending time with – they are all people who feel real, flawed and engaging, and I’d be perfectly willing to sit through another two hours of them fumbling their way through the messy misery of falling in love, staying in love, or loving people in their lives that they ultimately cannot be with. When the end credits roll, it’s impossible not to smile or feel heart-warmed. It’d take a cranky, Scrooge-like person to not fall for this film’s persuasive charm. Plus, if the biggest complaint about a motion picture is that there’s not enough of it, that’s surely indicative of a very enjoyable film.
Easily the biggest pleasure afforded by Love Actually is the cast, which is packed with a bunch of fine British actors. Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley, Kris Marshall, Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy and the aforementioned Rowan Atkinson are present here, just to name a few. Billy Bob Thornton even makes a cameo appearance as the President of the United States. To wax enthusiastically about the cast would take days, but suffice it to say this is an amazing ensemble, and there’s not a dud performance in sight. Every member of the cast managed to shape dynamic, distinct characters, and this helps keep story confusion to a minimum. Extra credit is due for Neeson who’s boundlessly likable, and for a very agreeable Hugh Grant as the Prime Minister. However, all of the stars are trumped by Billy Nighy, who’s an absolute show-stealer as Billy Mack. Nighy is a hoot, and he committed to the role 100%.
As a Christmas love story, Love Actually is romantic and jubilant enough to become a yuletide mainstay for adults. The London setting was beautifully photographed by Michael Coulter, and the soundtrack is pitch-perfect, with great Christmas tunes and some fantastic orchestral work. Despite running at over two hours, the pace was kept fast by Curtis who refused to waste a moment of screen-time. Luckily, this helps viewers to overlook the fluffy, sugar-coated nature of the material. Yes, the film is clichéd, but it’s smart, funny, entertaining and poignant; sidestepping the usual genre pitfalls to weave a thoroughly enjoyable exploration of the human heart. This is a delightful way to spend a couple of hours, and it’s terrific to witness so many of Britain’s best actors sharing screen space.