Love Actually at 20: Richard Curtis’s imperfect yet irresistible Christmas romcom | Love Actually

Of the many gestures of love, small and, more frequently, supersized, in Love Actually, the one that always stood out to me is of the former kind. Hugh Grant’s prime minister sits in a grand yet cosy drawing room at No 10, alone on Christmas Eve, rifling through holiday cards in his red despatch box. He comes across one from Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), the tea lady he’s been pining for since their first, expletive-filled meeting. “If you can’t say it at Christmas, when can you, eh?” she writes. “I’m actually yours.”

This statement of devotion, lovely in its smallness, precipitates Grant’s more memorable response, knocking on every door on her street in “the dodgy end” of Wandsworth until he finds her. It’s Christmas, the movie trumpets loopily: time to tell someone you love them!

Richard Curtis’s star-stuffed directorial debut, which turns 20 this year, is nobody’s favourite romcom. But it’s a lot of people’s favourite Christmas film. Love Actually, in which a bunch of predominately white, upper-middle-class Londoners fall in love while being self-deprecating and swearing inventively, was critically panned but a hit with audiences, making $247m worldwide. That divide persists today, with yearly vitriolic takedowns of the movie by columnists come December, while everyone else settles in for their annual rewatch. The ensemble cast love story spawned numerous rip-offs, from Valentine’s Day to He’s Just Not That Into You, while also apparently sounding the death knell for the romcom.

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 multistranded-ness of the film contributes, in part, to its longevity. While the saddest subplots – those with Thompson and Linney, crestfallen, open-hearted and magnificent – are indisputably the best, the portrayal of the many configurations of love rewards repeat viewing. I was 10 when the film came out, the same age as Brodie-Sangster’s Sam. His stepfather asks: “Aren’t you a little young to be in love?” “No,” he says. Back then, the solemnity of my fellow pre-teen resonated. I’ve experienced a few more things since then. I’ve watched Love Actually a few more times, too.

Many of the plots reward underdogs, which is cheering; the majority of them foreground a male perspective, which is not. In a reunion last year, Richard Curtis admitted the film was “bound in some moments to feel out of date. The lack of diversity makes me feel uncomfortable and a bit stupid.” But the movie’s flaws aren’t quite a matter of it having aged poorly; indeed, many of the things people object to now were raised by critics in 2003. Too hetero, too many fat jokes, too many relationships between a man and his female subordinate, too American, too cloying, too many plotlines. It’s unlikely the opening reference to 9/11 in support of Curtis’s manifesto that “love, actually, is all around” went down much better 20 years ago than it does now, either.

The movie snaps through storylines at the expense of characterisation, with Curtis relying on quirkiness – the Christmas lobster, the Bay City Rollers at a funeral – and the actors’ exceptional charisma to bring the film to life. Curtis’s background as a comedy sketch writer (most famously on Blackadder) shines in those scenes: Rowan Atkinson’s flourishing “this is so much more than a bag” cameo; Nighy’s promo tour appearances exuberantly trashing his own song.

Curtis has said that Love Actually is not about people in love, but love itself: “what love sort of means … about the subject rather than one example of a story about the subject.” His characters’ only motivation is love, and it’s all-consuming. Grant torpedoes Britain’s “special relationship” with the US after Billy Bob Thornton’s tanned rattlesnake of a president creeps on McCutcheon. His stirring speech about standing up to the Yanks has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with his crush, which is ridiculous and completely relatable to anyone who’s ever had one.

Photograph: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy

The film’s soaringly scored moments like these are memorable, sure, but Love Actually has more to say about inaction when it comes to love. Often, it nudges, the obstacle to love is ourselves; our shyness and fear of being rejected. It’s best illustrated by the Colin Firth plot, in which the charmingly frigid Englishman and timid Portuguese woman can only express their fondness for one another when they know the other person can’t actually understand them. Along with all the film’s lovers, he gathers the courage to say how he feels – because it’s Christmas! As the movie’s multiple crescendos buffet us in sugary waves, Firth asks Lúcia Moniz’s Aurélia to marry him in front of a crowd of onlookers. He ends his clunky Portuguese proposal with a coda: “It’s Christmas, so I just wanted to … check.”

The film leans into the idea of Christmas as a time that unseals hopeful lips, a Saturnalian interval of norms suspended and inhibitions overcome. A belief, in short – both manufactured and reinforced by romcoms – that in those harried, romanticised weeks of December, anything can happen. McCutcheon can write that Christmas card; Brodie-Sangster can dash through the airport to catch his crush before her flight; and, more darkly, Lincoln’s Mark can, after asking Knightley to lie to her husband, tell her he loves her with a stack of cue cards.

In Love Actually, love is all around – and so is Christmas, the marriage of the two so essential to the movie it’s spelled out in song. Billy Mack’s rewrite of the Troggs’ Love Is All Around to Christmas Is All Around coils cheekily through the film, urging characters: “If you really love me (Christmas), come on and let it show (snow).” If that schmaltzy message is too much, it’s worth remembering who’s delivering it: Nighy’s antic, flamboyantly shirted rockstar, his every line vibrating with naughtiness. Love Actually is by no means perfect. But it’s also just a bit of fun.

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