“Do you know it’s been almost ten years since this movie came out?” I asked my husband. I’d finally procured Love Actually through Redbox, in spite of trying every on-demand video service known to man and failing miserably, and now our holidays were complete. You’d think that this time of year, Netflix and Hulu and Zune would be tripping over themselves to procure the rights. But apparently not. Even a film that boasts more celebrated actors than a night at the BAFTAs apparently can’t wrangle it up–and even in spite of the fact that half of my social media friends seem to be looking for this movie and anticipating it as fervently as I am. But regardless. We watched the film last night, and I realized how it’s become a tradition in our family. Naturally, I wondered why that’s the case. And lo! This post was born.
For the uninitiated, Love Actually is a 2003 British film starring a bevy of English heavyweight actors (Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, and Colin Firth, just to name a few). It’s a movie that follows many pairs of people, and their families, through the five weeks leading up to Christmas, and even features Martin Freeman (currently sporting furry feet as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit movie) as a rather sweet body double for adult film scenes. While the people range from the Prime Minister himself (played by Hugh Grant) to a novelist (Colin Firth) and a graphic designer (Laura Linney), their lives at first don’t seem connected, but eventually come together. Not to mention, there’s an adorable little kid who you might now recognize as the voice of Phineas and Ferb‘s own Ferb Fletcher (and soon-to-be Jojen Reed in Game of Thrones), Thomas Sangster.
Which is all to say if you haven’t seen the movie, and I can’t imagine that you haven’t, well, this will be full of spoilers. But considering this movie is ten years out now, I’d say we’re in fair territory.
So here’s a few thoughts as to why Love Actually may just be one of the best holiday films out there, and perfect for those who might be tired of the classics and prefer their holiday fare with a little more wit and authenticity.
It’s not really about Christmas. Okay, so it’s technically about Christmas. But there isn’t an overwhelming, over your head gravity about it. It would still be a good movie without the Christmas stuff, which you really can’t say for about 94% of what passes as holiday fare these days. Sure, the main message that comes across is that Christmastime is about love, honesty, and openness. The characters manage this to a variety of levels of success, from get-you-in-the-heart romance to the lingering questions left by Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman’s married couple (more on that later). Christmas is the setting; it’s got that holiday warmth, but there isn’t any sappiness to the point of eye-rolling or religious proselytization (or cute animals or horrible CGI). Plus there’s no Santa business. It’s about what people actually do on the holidays without banging you over the head with Christmas spirit.
It’s about real people. Granted, they’re fictional characters portrayed by actors. But save a cameo by Claudia Schiffer, the majority of the actors aren’t exactly runway ready, and all the characters have a real sense of authenticity about them. The wardrobe, the lighting, the camera angles–these work to bring a further sense of humanity to the actors. You feel for Natalie (played by Martine McCutcheon) because while she’s a gorgeous woman, and certainly catches the eye of Grant’s PM, she’s not classically so. People call her chubby (which is rather silly–my one gripe with the film is that the screenwriter often relies on fat jokes, to ill effect). She’s awkward and silly, she isn’t well-spoken, she has a bit of a potty mouth. She’s from the bad side of town. But you like her right off the bat. Same for Thompson’s character, who’s discovers her husband’s flirtations with a gorgeous office aid. She covers up–smothers–her fury and betrayal in front of her kids at the flip of a switch, because that’s what must be done. There is hardly any drama, it’s all kept behind her guise in order to preserve herself and her kids. Sure, this movie never won Oscars. But some of the performances are so real, they’re heartbreaking.
It’s got a (mostly) amazing soundtrack. Mostly. There are a few questionable choices in there. But any film that starts with a live rendition of “All You Need Is Love” by the Beatles and ends with “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys is clearly doing something right. So, yes, you have to endure “All I Want For Christmas” a few times, and certainly the “Christmas Is All Around” retooling of the classic Troggs song gets a little old by the end. But the scene where Hugh Grant dances through his Downing Street to “Jump (For My Love)” by the Pointer Sisters is nothing short of iconic. Plus you get a brilliant performance by Thomson during “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell, a beautiful moment between Linney and her Brazillian hunk with Nora Jones’ rendition of “Turn Me On” and that staple of the early aughts, “Here With Me” by Dido. What results is a soundtrack with Christmas selections, but not burdened down with the Jingle Bell Rock, y’know?
It doesn’t tie everything up in a pretty bow. Sure, a good chunk of the stories are ended nicely. People get together, take risks. But even in the epilogue we see that things don’t always end up perfectly. Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson are still on the rocks. There’s no sign of Laura Linney’s character who, in spite of catching the eye of Karl, the office stud, can’t separate herself from her mentally ill brother in order to have a relationship. Because, as many of us are well aware, Christmastime and the holidays can sometimes get you through tough things but there’s no guarantee of a happy ending. It’s a romantic comedy that’s aware of the tropes of the genre but doesn’t exploit them to the point of disbelief. You’re left wondering where these characters’ lives will go, and there’s a certain sense of kinship at the movie’s end, without much holiness.
It’s got Colin Firth. While I feel this is self-explanatory, I’ll break it down for you a little more. I probably don’t have to tell you that Colin Firth has a certain special place in the hearts of many a GeekMom out there. Most of us can trace it back to the BBC Pride and Prejudice series from the 90s. But clearly there’s a Firth factor in this movie, even moreso than others I’ve seen. What do I mean, exactly? Well, his is the only narrative aside from Bill Nighy’s that’s essentially cut off from the rest of the film. He’s a writer (swoon) whose girlfriend cheats on him with his brother while he’s away at the wedding of his friends (Kiera Knightly and Chiwetel Ejiofor). He only sees them at the beginning and end of the film, while he’s away for the rest of it in France. Essentially he’s got his own separate story going on that, yes, feels a bit forced at the end. Except he’s Colin Firth. And clearly the producers were well aware that so long as he was in the film, it would be a huge benefit. So, yes. That is all ye need to know.
It’s one of the geekiest gateway films out there. Sure, there tends to be a concentration of actors appearing in geeky films when you get to the UK. However, you’d be hard pressed to find a movie that includes actors from Harry Potter (Rickman, Thompson, and Bill Nighy), Pirates of the Caribbean (Knightley and Nighy), The Hobbit (Martin Freeman), Serenity (Chiwetel Eljofor), Game of Thrones/Phineas and Ferb/Dr. Who (Thomas Sangster), X-Men: First Class (January Jones), the Narnia films (Liam Neeson), Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson, Firth, and screenwriter/director Richard Curtis), and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Freeman, Rickman, and Nighy). And really, that’s just scratching the surface.
More than anything, Love Actually is a movie by people who get it. That get that the holidays are about love and loss and memories. It’s about new beginnings and it’s about endings. It’s about family and second chances, and sometimes it’s about the same old, same old. It’s love, in its many, many forms, lighting the way through the coldest season.