WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: As Londoners gear up for Christmas, the intersecting loves and lives of a handful of them attempt to prove the theory that love is truly all around, from the high office of Downing Street where love strikes out of the blue, to the lowliest caterer dreaming of a Christmas with hot American women.
The third film in the unconnected but inevitably married-together Richard Curtis/Hugh Grant ‘trilogy’, Love Actually sees Curtis taking the directing reins for the first time and making life difficult for himself by not telling a single story, but instead providing a thematically-linked and interweaving compendium of tales all occurring in the run-up to a sparkling Christmas in London. There’s no real way of explaining the stories without running through them, so here goes:
Firstly, there’s Hugh Grant as new Prime Minister David, barely through the door of no. 10 when he meets housemaid Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), a chirpy and slightly chunky cockney sparrow who instantly takes his eye. Though the pair are attracted to each other, the visit of lascivious US President Billy Bob Thornton intervenes, causing David to alter the government’s foreign policy to a less US-friendly stance and send Natalie away, until David comes to his senses and races to make his feelings known. Secondly, David’s sister Karen (Emma Thompson) is preparing for a family Christmas with her children and husband Harry (Alan Rickman), but Harry is tempted by the fruit of another, shapely employee Mia (Heike Makatsch). Thirdly, Harry tries to get shy employees Sarah and Karl (Laura Linney and Rodrigo Santoro) together, but Sarah’s mysteriously always at the mercy of her mobile phone. Fourthly, author Jamie (Colin Firth) flees to the south of France to try to write his way out of a broken heart, and meets Portuguese cleaner Aurelia (Lucia Moniz), with whom he shares longing glances but no common language.
Fifthly, best man Andrew Lincoln does everything to make the wedding day of Peter and Juliet (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Keira Knightley) as special as he can, but why has he gone to such extraordinary lengths when he doesn’t even speak to the bride? Sixthly, grieving widower Daniel (Liam Neeson) tries to look after his stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster), but the eleven-year-old is troubled more by his feelings for schoolmate Joanna than by his memories of his mother. Seventhly, idealistic caterer Colin (Kris Marshall) shocks his friend with the sudden announcement that he’s off to America, where he has heard the bars are full of women desperate for sex and English accents. Eighthly, two stand-ins on a porn film (Martin Freeman and Joanna Page) develop a polite friendship as they find themselves in compromising positions. Ninthly – and providing as much of an over-arching tale as the film gets – Bill Nighy’s aging pop star Billy Mack attempts to wring a profit out of the festive season by getting the awful song Christmas is all Around to number 1, and escape from the uncomfortable truth that if he wants to spend Christmas with anyone, it’s bashful manager Joe (Gregor Townsend).
An experienced director would have to be at the top of his game to eke out each of these plot lines through the course of a two-hour-plus film giving sufficient weight to each and without losing the thread of any; so it’s little surprise that Curtis – wedded to the material as its creator – doesn’t quite pull off what he wants to achieve. The message, that love really, properly, actually is all around, in a multitude of shapes and forms, comes over loud and clear, but with so many different strands to balance the results are bound to be uneven. The heavyweight story belongs to Rickman and Thompson, who both give top-notch performances as the weak husband and the disappointed wife, but Makatsch’s Mia is unbecomingly sluttish and the unhappy nature of the tale threatens to bring down the whole film – you sense Curtis is aware of this when Rowan Atkinson arbitrarily pops up as comic relief. Firth’s middleweight tale, meanwhile, is cute but thin and Grant’s light turn as PM is fine, so long as you’re willing to overlook the patent absurdity and cheap politicking (the Blair-Bush parallels are blatant) of dissolving the ‘special relationship’ because the girl David fancies gets touched up. These three tales in particular, plus Daniel and Sam’s affecting story, have the feel of projects that couldn’t be stretched to feature-length on their own, whilst others (Colin, for example, and the stand-ins) are barely deep enough to sustain a two-minute sketch.
In his attempts to be thorough Curtis has overloaded the film, resulting in a number of elements that are merely variations on Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, including a nod to disability and three goes at the awkward leading man in Grant, Firth and Lincoln: Firth and Grant are both good, Lincoln not so much, though he must contend with acting opposite Knightley, who sadly kills the emotional and comic impact of every line she delivers. Love Actually would be a much more effective film without three of the stories at least, though I can’t be totally sure which ones; strangely for Curtis, it would also have benefitted from severely toning down some of the clunky and overwrought incidental music – though the pop stuff is all fine.
Love Actually is a bit flabby, then, but amazingly – and despite the endless repetition of the word ‘love’ – it almost completely avoids the seemingly unavoidable pitfall of sentimentality. Despite the presence of Sam and other children and a clumsy reference to 9/11 during the opening narration, the film gets around anything potentially cloying with action and humour. And make no mistake, Love Actually is funny, despite the downbeat moments, an over-reliance on swearing and a slight sense of over-familiarity: much though he might hate the scene, the sight of Grant dancing his way through Number 10 is a joy. The film makes light of the characters’ intersections, too, which refrains from overtly suggesting that everyone is connected in some mystical way.
Over-stuffed and of variable quality it may be, but Love Actually is no Christmas turkey. Not every story earns its place but you have to concede that Curtis as director and writer looks at love from all sides and tries to provide something for everyone, and that the actors by and large get the best out of his material. It would take a stony heart indeed not to laugh, empathise and once or twice (at the very least) shed a little tear.