Christmas 4 December 2018 | 12:00

Movie Advent #4: Love Actually

04 December 2018 12:00

Yes, yes. Get it all out of your system now: Richard Curtis, bloody Notting Hill, pre-Crash naivete, Blair’s Britain, industrial-strength sentimentality, Keira Knightley’s irritating hat, Colin Firth’s Portuguese, Andrew Lincoln playing the wimp before he got butch as Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead, the pretence that everyone in Britain shops at Cath Kidston, eats organic food and spends most of their time merrily carrying Christmas trees around. And the rest of it.

Feel better? Because Love Actually (Curtis, 2003) is, undoubtedly, a very irritating film. Against the backdrop of countdown to Christmas, it deploys every weary trope of romantic comedy with sometimes epic predictability – especially the Cinderella cross-class love affair: prime minister falls for tea lady (Hugh Grant, Martine McCutcheon), heart-broken writer finds himself smitten by his Portuguese housekeeper (Colin Firth, Lucia Moniz).

Lincoln’s crush on Knightley – a bait-and-switch, where you’re initially encouraged to think that his real passion is for his best friend and her husband (Chiwetel Ejiofor) – is astonishingly annoying. There are standard-issue workplace romances – boss and secretary (Alan Rickman, Heike Makatsch), and designer and creative director (Laura Linney, Rodrigo Santoro).

No cliché goes unmined, no formula unsqueezed. These ten separate stories are indeed thoroughly interspliced and entangled, but those who have invoked Robert Altman or La Ronde (Max Ophuls, 1950) as points of reference do Curtis no favours.

How easy, then, to dismiss Love Actually as the relic of an annoyingly complacent era in British culture, best consigned to the oblivion that awaits most comic movies. But Curtis’s film refuses to die, and there is a reason for that. Which is that, for all its irritations, it is – in fact, and to an unexpected extent – very good.

To say as much is to court controversy, not to say ridicule. But when Love Actually works (which is a lot more often than its critics allow) it packs a hefty emotional punch. Exhibit A is Emma Thompson’s extraordinary moment of immobilised grief as she stands in the marital bedroom, absorbing the fact that Rickman has betrayed her: Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ is an utterly perfect soundtrack to the scene, and it is hard to believe that it was not written by the great folk singer for this specific purpose.

In her mortified stasis, Thompson conveys the pain of infidelity – and the paralysis that so often accompanies it – more accurately than any staged scene of confrontation between husband and wife ever could. It is an important principle in Love Actually that not everything works out – even at Christmas – and that true love does not always conquer all. As often as not, people have to make do with the emotional wreckage they are left with, or the second-best love that they find waiting for them in gloomy rooms at dusk.

Exhibit B is the scene in which (spoilers), Liam Neeson urges his love-stricken young stepson (Thomas Sangster) to run through the security barriers at Heathrow to say goodbye to the girl he adores. Never mind that, in the immediate post-9/11 era, the poor kid would probably have been tasered. Disbelief is suspended, rousing music swells, the heart conquers common sense. The sequence ought to be a glutinous disaster, but it is quite the opposite.

Exhibit C: Bill Nighy (the comic jewel in the movie’s crown), having just secured the Christmas number one with his novelty single, leaves a party hosted by Elton John to see in Christmas with his manager (Gregor Fisher). ‘It’s a terrible mistake, Chubs,’ he says, ‘but you turn out to be the fucking love of my life. And to be honest, despite all my complaining, we have had a wonderful life.’

Amid all the schmaltz and heavily-trailed plot turns, Love Actually succeeds precisely because of its strands of authenticity – and if that sounds contradictory, it is. The affair between Prime Minister Grant and McCutcheon is completely absurd, but has an observational delicacy that is completely at odds with its essential implausibility.

You could be a literalist Grinch and sulkily resist the charm of Love Actually. But to what end? God knows, there’s enough to feel bleak about this Christmas. So treat yourself to 136 minutes of pre-Trump, pre-Brexit nostalgia, if only to remind yourself that not everything in life is terrible, actually.