After enduring my raging about the mangling of Scottish history in A Castle for Christmas, one of my more sensible correspondents pointed out that such mangling is very much the way of the rom-com. Hallmark specifically, seem to mangle everything they touch in their films, from setting up a bakery to buying a castle. The rom-com is not a place for everyday truth or practical accuracy; it’s a fantasy world as distinct as any sci-fi universe, and it stands and falls on our emotional rather than intellectual response. Richard Curtis’ Love Actually is arguably the greatest rom-com of all, splicing as it does ten different stories of lovelorn Londoners into a selection box smorgsabord that we just can’t resist over Christmastime. Every selection box has a certain amount of unwanted Turkish Delight you wouldn’t want to step in; Love Actually has suddenly gained many vociferous detractors on social media over the 2021 holiday season, and they’re not wrong to point out the idiocies involved. But surely such carping doesn’t negate the power of a great film; does Love Actually still deserve its sainted reputation?
Let’s unwrap the good stuff first. Hugh Grant makes for a great UK prime-minister, better than any of the real ones for sure; a completely unpolitical figure, David walks into Downing Street as if he just won the job as a competition winner. His romance with a member of his household staff (Martine McCutcheon) is utterly improbable, ending as it does with the happy couple revealed to the world through a falling curtain after a local nativity play. But Grant’s charm sells the shopworn story, and the scenes of him Risky Business-dancing around No 10 to The Pointer Sisters’ Jump and furtively knocking on constituents’ doors on Christmas Eve are still funny. A different note is struck by David’s sister (Emma Thompson) and her suspicion that her husband (Alan Rickman) is cheating on her; both actors are in their element with the pathos, and Rickman makes something quasi-Shakespearean of his “I’ve been a classic fool line.’ And the moment where Laura Linney deftly yet desperately tidies her room in anticipation of a sexual tryst is heartbreakingly caught. These are iconic, treasurable moments in British cinema, unforgettable and untarnishable.
Not so the rest. Kris Marshall’s sex trip to the US is a horrific sop to lads culture and American Pie, bedecked with sexism. Bill Nighy’s Christmas number one story is garish and crude. The love story between Colin Firth and his housekeeper makes zero sense since they can’t understand each other, but when they go swimming, he sees she’s fit, so that’s all OK; his description of himself as a ‘total spazz’ is regrettable. Similarly light on detail, it’s inexplicable that Andrew Lincoln is so infatuated with Keira Knightley, even though they’ve barely spoken, although the bitter-sweet cue-card punch-line works. The Martin Freeman porno movie sequences are wisely removed from most tv showing, they’re tone deaf and pointless, and a number of fat-shaming jokes don’t land well. Thompson and Linney aside, the female characters are appallingly drawn, just pretty objects to be desired.
Far better than the dreaded Jude Law pop-in melodrama The Holiday, Love Actually is ideal for festive-period streaming; you can stick it on while you’re cooking and liquidise the sprouts while the bad bits unspool. While Curtis clearly connects more with some stories than others, the best bits are genuinely classics, and if you can bear the misfires, it’s a film that genuinely tries to look at love from all sides now, even is the POV is generally male. Despite our modish reservations, Love Actually defies our virtue signalling to remain a bona fide festive classic, somehow top 5 on Netflix in the UK in 2021 despite being free on terrestrial tv and on Amazon Prime at the same time.