Out of all the different ways love is expressed in Love Actually, the one that has always stuck with me is a small gesture. In a lavish but comfortable room at No 10, the prime minister played by Hugh Grant sits by himself on Christmas Eve, going through holiday cards in his red box. He comes across one from Natalie (played by Martine McCutcheon), the tea lady who he has been longing for since their first meeting filled with swear words. In her card, she writes, “If you can’t say it at Christmas, when can you, eh?” and ends with “I am yours.”
Grant’s response, triggered by a small but heartfelt act of devotion, leads him to knock on every door in the less-than-desirable area of Wandsworth until he locates the recipient. The movie celebrates the holiday season as a time to express one’s love for another.
Richard Curtis’ first film as a director, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, may not be everyone’s top choice for a romantic comedy. However, it has become a beloved Christmas movie for many. Love Actually follows the love lives of a group of mostly white, upper-middle-class Londoners who use self-deprecating humor and creative swearing to navigate their relationships. While critics initially panned the film, it became a box office success, earning $247 million worldwide. To this day, there is a divide between those who vehemently dislike the movie and those who eagerly rewatch it every December. The film’s ensemble cast and love stories have inspired many imitators, such as Valentine’s Day and He’s Just Not That Into You, but also contributed to the decline of the romantic comedy genre.
Through nine interconnected storylines set in a crisply gorgeous London fantasyland of Notting Hill mews houses, scuffed wooden furniture and the old orange-striped Waitrose bag, the film runs its fingers around the edges of the different shapes of love. There’s Grant, of course, as the UK’s bachelor prime minister, bewildered by infatuation into not finishing sentences; Colin Firth’s writer holed up by a freezing pastoral lake falling in love (and in the lake) with his Portuguese cleaner; Laura Linney’s office worker pining after a handsome colleague; Bill Nighy’s superb lothario rocker Billy Mack staging a long-shot comeback with a “solid-gold shit” Christmas single; Martin Freeman and Joanna Page as naked body doubles on a movie set sweetly and awkwardly realising they fancy each other; Liam Neeson’s grieving stepfather and his son (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) reconnecting as he helps the 10-year-old woo his school crush; Kris Marshall’s thirsty loser flying to Wisconsin to get laid; most controversially, Andrew Lincoln’s Mark, stalking the wife of his best friend (Keira Knightley and Chiwetel Ejiofor); and most heartbreakingly, Emma Thompson’s discovery of Alan Rickman’s near-affair with his turtleneck-wearing assistant, in the most desolate box-opening scene in a movie since Seven.
The film’s complexity contributes to its lasting appeal. While the most emotionally impactful storylines – those featuring Thompson and Linney, vulnerable and admirable – are undoubtedly the strongest, the exploration of various forms of love makes rewatching a rewarding experience. I was 10 when the film was released, the same age as Sam, played by Brodie-Sangster. When his stepfather questions his feelings, he confidently responds with a firm “no.” At the time, I related to the seriousness of my fellow pre-teen. However, since then, I have gained more life experiences. I have also revisited Love Actually multiple times.
The majority of storylines in the film favor underdogs, which is uplifting. However, most of them focus on a male perspective, which is problematic. During a reunion last year, Richard Curtis acknowledged that the movie may feel outdated at times. The lack of diversity makes him feel uncomfortable and foolish. However, these flaws were also pointed out by critics in 2003, suggesting that the issues were present from the beginning. The film has been criticized for being too heterosexual, containing too many fat jokes, and featuring too many relationships between a man and his female subordinate. It has also been deemed too American, overly sentimental, and having too many plotlines. Even the movie’s opening reference to 9/11 in support of Curtis’s message that “love, actually, is all around” may not have been well-received 20 years ago.
The film jumps between different storylines without fully developing the characters, relying on unconventional elements like a Christmas lobster and the Bay City Rollers at a funeral, as well as the charming performances of the actors. Curtis’s background in comedy sketch writing, notably on Blackadder, is evident in these moments: Rowan Atkinson’s comedic cameo with the “bag” and Nighy’s energetic promotional tour where he pokes fun at his own song.
According to Curtis, Love Actually is not a story about individuals in love, but rather about the concept of love itself. The characters in the film are driven solely by their desire for love, which consumes them completely. Grant’s character jeopardizes Britain’s alliance with the US when the US president, played by Billy Bob Thornton, makes advances towards McCutcheon. Despite his passionate speech about standing up to America, it is clear that his actions are motivated by his own crush, a situation that is both absurd and relatable to anyone who has experienced unrequited love.
The film’s moments of soaring score, while memorable, also shed light on the theme of inaction in love. Love Actually suggests that often, the biggest obstacle to love is our own hesitation and fear of rejection. This is exemplified in the storyline of Colin Firth’s character, a reserved Englishman who can only express his feelings for a timid Portuguese woman when he believes she cannot understand him. Like the other characters in the film, he finds the courage to speak his heart during the holiday season. As the movie reaches its multiple climaxes, Firth proposes to Aurélia in front of a crowd, ending his awkward Portuguese with a closing statement: “It’s Christmas, so I just wanted to… make sure.”
The movie embraces the notion of Christmas as a season that encourages people to open up and express their hopes, a period of time where cultural norms are put on hold and inhibitions are overcome. It is a belief, influenced by romantic comedies, that during the busy and idealized weeks of December, anything is possible. McCutcheon can compose a heartfelt Christmas card; Brodie-Sangster can race through the airport to confess his feelings to his crush before she leaves; and, in a more sinister twist, Lincoln’s Mark can, after persuading Knightley to lie to her husband, proclaim his love for her through a series of cue cards.
The film Love Actually features a strong presence of both love and Christmas, with the two being intertwined and emphasized through music. One notable example is Billy Mack’s playful version of the Troggs’ song Love Is All Around, which has been altered to reflect the holiday season. Throughout the movie, Mack encourages characters to openly express their love for each other, jokingly singing “If you really love me (Christmas), come on and let it show (snow).” While some may find this sentimental message excessive, it’s important to consider the character delivering it: Nighy’s mischievous and flamboyant rockstar persona, who adds a playful energy to every line. Love Actually may have its flaws, but ultimately it’s just meant to be lighthearted and entertaining.