Universal // 2003 // 135 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees (Retired) // June 21st, 2004
Love actually is all around.
The cover art and menu images for Love Actually present it as a Christmas gift wrapped in a big red bow. This is of course appropriate to the film's holiday setting, which comes into play as a catalyst in a number of the plots that are woven together in the film. Visually, however, it is also reminiscent of a big box of candy, like the chocolate assortments that my grandmother always used to give out during the holidays, and that strikes me as a happy analogy for the movie itself. With a multitude of different love stories inside, with flavors ranging from sugar-sweet to bittersweet, Love Actually offers such a wide assortment of treats that most every viewer should find at least one that appeals to their taste.
The kaleidoscopic nature of Love Actually makes it difficult to summarize, and in fact constructing a sort of diagram of the myriad intersecting and overlapping relationships would obliterate some of the best surprises the film springs on us. For example, we may initially root for two characters to act on their flirtation, only to discover later that one is married -- and to a character we have already grown fond of. Writer-director Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones's Diary) employs a number of such belated revelations to surprise our expectations and redirect our feelings about the characters, and I'd hate to render moot his skillful story construction. Thus, this plot synopsis will probably seem vague -- but it is deliberately so.
As Christmas approaches, has-been rocker Billy Mack (Bill Nighy, I Capture the Castle) prepares to record a new Christmas cover of one of his old hits. He and his long-suffering promoter (Gregor Fisher) hope the clunky result, "Christmas is All Around," will top the charts, but Billy actually works against its success by behaving obnoxiously in his promotional appearances. While he seems to be immune to the Christmas spirit, others are embracing it: Juliet (Keira Knightley, Pirates of the Caribbean) and Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dirty Pretty Things) have chosen this time of year to marry, and a Christmas party may also provide an excuse for sexy Mia (Heike Matasch) to finally make the play for her boss (Alan Rickman, Truly Madly Deeply) that she's been plotting. Others, however, may be unable to spend Christmas with that special someone: Sarah (Laura Linney, Mystic River) and John (Martin Freeman, The Office) are both finding it difficult to work up the nerve to approach the coworkers they secretly adore. Even England's new Prime Minister (Hugh Grant, Notting Hill) finds himself distracted from his upcoming meeting with the U.S. president (Billy Bob Thornton) by the charms of his radiant assistant Natalie (Martine McCutcheon).
For others, however, the season just brings fresh reminders of the absence of love from their lives. Amiable author Jamie (Colin Firth, Bridget Jones's Diary) is betrayed by his girlfriend and retreats to work on his new book in a solitude broken only by the shy presence of his Portuguese housekeeper, the fetching Aurelia (Lucia Moniz), with whom he cannot even carry on a conversation -- despite his increasing desire to do so. Daniel (Liam Neeson, Rob Roy), whose wife has just died, must try to reach out to his young stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster) as they both work through their grief and help the youngster through the pangs of his own first love. Despite the happiness of newlyweds Juliet and Peter, the groom's best friend Mark (Andrew Lincoln, This Life) is struggling to reconcile himself to their marriage. And even upbeat wife and mother Karen (Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility) must confront the awful realization that her apparently secure domestic world is beginning to quake beneath her feet. Nevertheless, Christmas is still the season of hope for many, like fretfully single Colin (Kris Marshall, Iris), who decides that the only way he's going to score is to go to America, where he confidently expects to meet a bevy of hot women who will be entranced by his cute accent.
As the weeks tick past to Christmas Day, some of these people will have their hearts broken and their secrets revealed. Others will find love, sometimes unexpectedly. Some will learn to live with no more than what they have. But all of them, in some fashion, will find that love has changed their lives irrevocably.
Richard Curtis has established himself as a deft writer of comedy (with the Blackadder and Mr. Bean series) as well as a winning writer of romance, and Love Actually takes these talents to a higher level by multiplying the number of characters and plot lines. Thus, in just one film Curtis can explore many different faces of love, from the unexpected to the predestined, from the premature to the tardy. I particularly enjoyed the fact that Curtis did not confine his film to the realm of romantic or erotic love: Although the majority of the story lines are what we think of when we hear the phrase "love story," he shows us many other kinds of love as well, from bonding between stepfather and stepson to the reliance of brother upon sister, and even including a most unlikely but enduring friendship or platonic love. From the opening voiceover to the final montage, the film is an outpouring of optimism and warmth, reminding us that, even when the world seems to be filled with pain and uncertainty, we can find love all around us if we look for it. The message may sound facile, but it actually comes as a timely reminder, and the optimism is not only infectious but heartening. Sometimes we do, indeed, need to be reminded that love is all around -- especially when our lives, like those of some of the film's characters, don't follow the course we would like them to.
Now, don't reach for the insulin just yet. As viewers of Curtis's previous films know, he always tempers his romanticism with large, welcome helpings of bracing comedy, and Love Actually is rescued from sentimentalism by his bawdy, irreverent humor. The presence throughout the film of Billy Mack -- outspoken, addled, often downright offensive -- is the ideal antidote to incipient sentimentalism. A publicist's worst nightmare, Billy never hesitates to tell television and radio audiences that his new single is pure commercial crap. Nighy has some of the film's funniest lines -- most of which are unrepeatable here -- and a wholly unsentimental view of the holiday season that adds a note of honesty to a film that could have merely capitalized on the warm fuzzies traditionally associated with Christmas. Billy Mack's attitude reminds us that the holiday season is also the time of year that sees a monumental rise in the suicide rate; people who feel unloved and alone can see the jolly holiday as a slap in the face. Curtis never quite loses sight of the darker side of the season of love, and this acknowledgment adds a certain richness to the film. However, another of the funniest story lines is also one of the most optimistic and innocent: the shy, awkward courtship of the oft-nude John and Judy (Joanna Page), who work as stand-ins for movie sex scenes. The contrast between their constant sexual gymnastics and their innocuous conversations is simply inspired.
Also inspired is the casting. I like to joke that there are only about thirty working actors in England, which is why they show up (in varying combinations) in just about every British film or television series. Love Actually certainly seems to support my theory, featuring as it does a cast of very familiar faces. But how could anyone quibble with the casting of such cinematic phenomena as Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, and Laura Linney? All of these actors have proved their excellence in both comedy and drama, and here they get to demonstrate their expertise in both areas. Linney in particular stands out, not just by being one of the few American cast members, but by giving a performance that is both endearing and heartrending. Her insecurity and her naked adoration of the gorgeous Karl (Rodrigo Santoro, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle) make us sympathize with her so strongly that when we finally come to understand the burden she carries -- a burden that constantly interferes with her living her own life -- we can practically feel our hearts breaking. Also a standout is young Thomas Sangster. As the bright-eyed Sam, he is the most winning cinematic stepson since Jonathan Lipnicki in Jerry Maguire, and even at his tender age he partners veteran actor Liam Neeson with aplomb.
Other relative newcomers to the big screen also give dazzling performances. As the prime minister's would-be love interest, Martine McCutcheon, a veteran of British TV, is lovably awkward and sweet, although I found it strange that the script insisted on her chubbiness; only standing next to wafer-thin Knightley, with whom she has no scenes, could she be described as plump. (Likewise, even though Grant's age is commented upon, he looks far younger than his actual age, and this was a bit disconcerting.) Portuguese actress Lucia Moniz, whose dialogue is mostly subtitled, subtly conveys yearning and delight through facial expression and gesture. And a face very familiar to fans of Richard Curtis, the always wonderful Rowan Atkinson, makes a cameo appearance as an impossibly elegant salesman, who appears later at a moment of crisis in a most providential manner. Altogether I cannot imagine this cast being improved upon.
As befits a Christmas present, the film comes nicely packaged. Audio and visual are glossy and without obvious flaw. Although I'm not always in sympathy with the musical selections (see The Rebuttal Witnesses), they do sound full and clear in their Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Extras are very handsome and include a thirty-minute segment of deleted and alternate scenes, each of which is introduced by Curtis, and most of which also contain musical scoring. According to Curtis, the film initially clocked in at three and a half hours, so a great deal of material that he was fond of had to go -- but, fortunately for us, much of it is available here. Some of the material seems redundant or unnecessary, but most of these deleted scenes enhance our understanding of the film and flesh out plot points and character relationships. Many of them are also very funny, including a segment that explains why the art gallery where one Christmas party is held is full of sexually explicit holiday photographs. One of the funniest segments features the surly son of the Emma Thompson character, whose role was all but deleted from the finished film, and there is even a little side story featuring yet another face of love. My only objection to this substantial extra is that there is no directory to the material it includes and no menu to guide one to specific deleted scenes, so that one has to take it all in one gulp, not even knowing what's ahead.
The featurette on the music of the film is brief and only covers three songs, each of which is represented by some film clips and is introduced by Curtis. An attractive but unexciting music video by Kelly Clarkson for the song she sings over the end credits is also included. The feature-length commentary is much more fun. The majority of the commentary is carried by Curtis and Hugh Grant, who frequently have to query Bill Nighy and young Thomas Sangster outright to evoke their participation. The commentary is very casual and relaxed (one can hear the chink of teacups on saucers from time to time), and since Grant and Nighy are viewing the finished film for the first time, they often even shush each other so that they can view a particular scene. Nevertheless, there is much humorous chaffing (absent actor Colin Firth in particular is the subject of much good-natured ribbing), and Curtis offers many illuminating bits of information about the inspiration for the film, its development, his influences, and his intentions. I found it charming that the commentary should include young Sangster (who, we discover, is related to Grant), although I thought some of the film a bit too mature for him; indeed, as if they read my mind, the other commentators make a point of distracting him during one of the John-and-Judy scenes until it is "safe" for him to watch again.
I blame Nora Ephron. Ever since Sleepless in Seattle, romantic comedies seem to be relying more and more on familiar pop song snippets to set the mood. It's as if directors don't trust the audience to know how to react unless there is a familiar musical cue to tell them. Richard Curtis, who used this all too familiar technique to the point of saturation in Bridget Jones's Diary, is guilty of resorting to it again in Love Actually. In some scenes the songs do function as an enhancement of the emotional content of the story, as in the instances where we hear the Pointer Sisters' buoyant "Jump (for My Love)." But in other scenes the pop song takes over, so that the actors seem to be working to supplement the music rather than vice versa: The intrusion of Dido's "Here with Me," for example (a song I like, mind you), stomps all over a poignant wordless scene featuring Andrew Lincoln. By his own account, Curtis finds pop songs inspiring for his script writing, but it's a shame he can't restrain their use to a supplementary role in the finished film and trust his writing and directing to convey his meaning without musical Cliffs Notes.
And it's not just the vocal selections that beat us over the head. Craig Armstrong's score, gently romantic and poignant in some scenes, swells into would-be epic proportions in at least three scenes -- in most of which a note of whimsy would be more welcome. The use of the big, triumphal symphonic blast becomes repetitive in addition to being ill-considered; it changes scenes that could have been exhilarating and tries to sell them as big Movie Moments. I was not sold. The low-key, whimsical quality of Love Actually is easily overwhelmed by such orchestral insistence, and moments that could have been charming fantasy are revealed as simply unlikely when delivered with such self-serious grandeur.
These occasions of incongruity between content and score emphasize a more fundamental incongruity among the different levels of realism at work in the film. Some of the stories are resolved in a true-to-life manner, one that admits that not all endings are happy ones, and that some relationships will never come to pass, while others will need to undergo a slow, painful rebuilding process. Others, however, are pure Hollywood-style fantasy and demand considerable suspension of disbelief. On the whole I think the more fantastical elements can be accepted as part of the film's overall optimism. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which the film keeps changing the rules by which it operates: half the movie acknowledges the untidiness and injustice of real life, where the other half is operating along lines of pure wish fulfillment. While these differing approaches may increase the film's appeal to a more diverse audience, it carries the faint unpleasant whiff of cheating to me.
I enjoyed Love Actually greatly -- far more, indeed, than I had expected to. On balance, in the past I have tended to enjoy Richard Curtis's purely comic ventures somewhat more than his romantic comedies, but this time around the elements seem to be in a truly harmonious balance. Despite the reservations I've mentioned, I'm already looking forward to watching this film again. Its combination of humor and heart makes it perfect for the whole year round, but it also feels like a generous Christmas gift to movie fans, whether one is a lover of comedy or romance. Thanks, Richard. See you under the mistletoe.
In the true spirit of Christmas, this judge finds everyone not guilty. Except, of course, for the mercenary suits responsible for inflicting "Christmas Is All Around" on an unsuspecting public. We're adjourned!
Review content copyright © 2004 Amanda DeWees; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2004 Nominee
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 135 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted or Alternate Scenes with Commentary by Writer-Director Richard Curtis
* Feature Commentary with Writer-Director Richard Curtis and Actors Hugh Grant, Bill Nighy, and Thomas Sangster
* Featurette: "The Music of the Film" with Introductions by Writer-Director Richard Curtis
* Music Video: "The Trouble with Love"
* DVD-ROM content
* Official Site