If you look hard enough, you'll find that a multi-perspective Christmas movie review really IS all round... Believe it or not, Love Actually is TWENTY years old this year. But two decades on, is it still a movie we love (actually) to hate, or is it one to finally put into festive film retirement?
What did our writers think of this Christmas classic?
As the holiday season drew in and my rewatch of Love actually grew closer, I started to feel…nervous. Love Actually is old. And like most old things, age isn’t doing it too many favours. However, to my surprise, I found that with each passing minute, I was enjoying the experience much more than I had anticipated.
The best comparison I can make is to call Love Actually a patchy Christmas tapestry – some parts just have a more refined stitching. The unconventional stories stuck out the most to me. In a movie chronicling love, it was Emma Thompson’s devastation at a life destroyed that was the clear standout. In a now iconic scene, which happens to be one of my favourite uses of music in all of film, she stifles sobs, while Joni Mitchell plays in the background. It is absolutely sincere, painfully so. Moving, crushing and, above all, firmly relatable to anyone who’s been burnt amongst the warm holiday embrace, what makes it better is that there is no happy ending; once Christmas is over she’ll be left in the wreckage.
But it’s not all doom and gloom either: Bill Nighy’s turn as the washed-up rock star Billy Mack balances out the movie. Dry, bawdy humour fuels Mack’s endeavour to achieve the rather paltry victory of a Christmas number one, with an unexpected but genuine conclusion with his manager, Joe. Meanwhile, Hugh Grant is perhaps the best Prime Minister this country has ever seen, while his love interest, Natalie, played rather sweetly by Martine McCutcheon, enjoys the perfect wish-fulfilment romantic fantasy – real-life complications of dating your boss (who runs the country) aside!
The movie isn’t without its snags: casually uncomfortable fatphobia and the unfortunate choice to name a young child’s first love after his recently deceased mother emphasises the film's more dated nature. The more conventional love stories suffer from a case of being overwhelmingly uninteresting, not even Collin Firth and all his Mr Darcy romantic charm could save Jamie and Aurélia’s romance from being a distracting slog. Its by-the-numbers story beats pales in comparison to the more fun and generally more sincere stories that surround it. Liam Neeson and his son, played by Thomas Sangster, inhabit a rather sad story that despite its tragic tone, isn’t safe from my judgment, and I deem it painfully dull. Sam’s puppy love was simply far too sugary sweet, even for me.
There are sparks of more interesting movies that could have been: Laura Linney’s Sarah is the quintessential iceberg, with a quietly devastating story about sacrifice just beneath the surface. I’m certain this storyline would have developed far stronger with a little extra time. Meanwhile, recent popular culture has touted that the more interesting direction of the infamous Juliet, Peter, and Mark love triangle would have been for Mark to have hidden feelings for his long-time friend. I’d have to agree with the masses on that much more interesting angle to the well-worn triangle, but perhaps not safe enough for 2003. For the trio, what’s there is generally fine, if a little embarrassing for Mark, though I must admit I did smile a little when he showed up with his cards and carol recordings. Quite frankly, I wanted a whole movie about John and Julie, whose intimate shyness contrasted so starkly with their outrageous surroundings I just had to root for them!
Make no mistake, Love Actually is a quintessential Christmas cake movie: sugary sweet, distinctly old in the way it is fashioned and definitely not to everyone’s taste. However, there’s something to be said for indulgence. For loving the sappy and the cliche, as well as embracing the sadness. I fear I am far too old for any surprise Christmas gifts this year, but I’m glad to say that this movie was an unexpected joy to watch, and as it turns out love, actually, isn’t all that bad.
I think we can all agree that Love Actually has one of the greatest Christmas film openings of all time. Even with Hugh Grant as the voiceover. To be honest it lives in my head rent free, especially when I am at the airport. I get so emotional watching people reunite with their loved ones at the arrivals gate and I blame this film for that.
It’s a shame the rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to it. The exception to this is the final scene back at Heathrow, but the in-between is irritating and mildly offensive. To start with, I used to really love Natalie, the absolutely NOT FAT Prime Minister’s assistant. I thought she was funny and charming, and to an extent I still agree, however I have since realised that she is mostly reduced to a stereotype whose only notable element is her weight or her sex appeal. They even try to address why this is wrong in the film, but then continue to not really develop her character’s personality further than making her the point of Hugh Grant’s character arc. Oh, he is so brave for looking past her family background and society’s thoughts on her non-existent weight problems! It’s kind of disappointing revisiting this storyline that you once thought was romantic, to discover that it is actually quite superficial.
There are multiple other issues of representation – the depictions of mental health issues are just sad to watch. Sarah’s brother, Michael, is granted very limited screen time, even though he is an important part of Sarah’s storyline, and, in the few moments we do see him, he is not granted much substance other than being depicted as aggressive. Once again, a disappointing representation that can be – and is – quite harmful.
Don’t even get me started on the fact how it’s a film about several ‘diverse’ love stories, and not one of them is centred on a queer couple. It’s insinuated that Bill Nighy and his manager end on a romantic note, but I feel like it is never overtly stated or addressed. It could just be a lovely story about platonic love. If you are going to have queer characters in your stories then make them queer! Don’t make them womanizers throughout the whole film and then end on an ambiguous note. A small saving grace is Bill Nighy’s comedic delivery, it really is brilliant.
There are a few other notable elements: Emma Thompson’s performance throughout is an obvious shining light. I will never forgive Alan Rickman for doing that to her, but I have to thank the film for introducing me to Joni Mitchell. A few of the storylines are sweet if you overlook some of the annoyances in them, like, how are Colin Firth and Aurelia in love when they cannot understand each other, but OK. Kiera Knightly’s storyline is nothing but creepy though – there is nothing sweet about stalking.
Overall, I think Love Actually is pretty dated; I guess British society wasn’t as self-aware of its role in these issues as it may be now. We have moved on in terms of representation, and, while it’s not perfect, it’s a development. I like my Christmas films to bring me joy and rewatching this just made me feel angry more than anything else. I think I am happy to leave this one behind.
You can watch Love Actually on NOW with a premium subscription.
Edited by Hamilton Brown