Universal // 2003 // 135 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 3rd, 2009
The Ultimate Romantic Comedy
"Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there -- fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge -- they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaking suspicion...love actually is all around."
The lives of an aging rock star (Bill Nighy, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End), two sex scene stand-ins (Martin Freeman, The Office and Joanna Page, Gavin and Stacy), a horny young man (Kris Marshall, Easy Virtue), a pair of newlyweds (Kiera Knightley, Pride and Prejudice and Chiwetel Ejiofor, Serenity), a writer (Colin Firth, Nanny McPhee), a design agency director (Alan Rickman, Die Hard), the director's wife (Emma Thompson, The Remains of the Day), the British Prime Minister (Hugh Grant, About a Boy), the President of the United States (Billy Bob Thornton, The Man Who Wasn't There), a servant girl (Martine McCutcheon, EastEnders), a grieving widower (Liam Neeson, Michael Collins), a young boy (Thomas Sangster, The Last Legion), an employee of the graphic design company (Laura Linney, The Exorcism of Emily Rose), and a jeweler (Rowan Atkinson, Rat Race) connect in a variety of complex and romantically charged ways.
Love Actually may not be "The Ultimate Romantic Comedy," but one certainly has to give it points for trying. This star-studded, densely-plotted Richard Curtis film has been attacked for assaulting the viewer with an overdose of romantic fulfillment and "Christmas spirit." To be sure, it's manipulative and saccharine as all get-out, but you know what? It works, because one gets the sense that Curtis (who also wrote the screenplay) is putting a lot of genuine feeling into this thing. For every moment that makes you roll your eyes, there is another right behind that sneaks up on you and manages to get under your skin. The first time I saw the film was back when it was released in theatres. At the time, as the film was steamrolling toward its big conclusion, I was fully aware that my strings were being pulled, but when one particular moment arrived I found a little tear rolling down my cheek despite the logical part of my mind ordering me to scowl. I was curious about how well it would hold up this time, and I'll be darned if that same moment didn't get me again. So many romantic films/holiday movies blatantly attempt to make us laugh and cry, but Love Actually deserves credit for actually succeeding in this regard.
The film is like a greatest hits collection of melodramatic clichés, but they're presented in such a sincere and heartfelt manner that we're reminded of why such clichés are employed so frequently: when they work, they really work. There are dozens of scenes in this film that might have been the emotional high point of other movies. We've got the Big Wedding Scene, the Big Musical Number, the Big Funeral Scene, the Big Proposal Scene, and on and on and on. This might have been unbearable if the film were nothing more than a bucket of sugar, but Curtis laces this sweet dish with enough spicy humor to keep things fresh and involving throughout.
In that department, there is perhaps no one funnier in the film than the great Bill Nighy as the aging pop star. Forced by his agent to turn his biggest hit into an abysmal Christmas song, Nighy turns carefree on the interview circuit, cheerfully admitting to the press that he regards his song as a complete piece of crap. I particularly love his bit of advice to the young viewers of a youth-oriented television program: "Kids, please don't buy drugs...become a pop star, and you'll get them for free!" There's also a dryly amusing ongoing gag involving the sex scene stand-ins played by Martin Freeman and Joanna Page. The gag is simple (two actors disrobe and simulate sex on camera, but he is still quite nervous about asking her out for a cup of coffee), and they pull it off with subtle humor and tenderness. Hugh Grant is at the peak of his charming powers as the PM, and gets to deliver a lot of entertaining lines while also generating some genuine feeling during the romantic moments he shares with his employee.
Though there are certain storylines that stand out as being particularly exceptional (Nighy's segment, Alan Rickman teetering between his faithfulness to his wife and the lustful feelings he has for his co-worker, everything with Grant and McCutcheon), the remarkable thing is that not a single story falls flat or outright fails. Sure, a couple might be slightly less involving than I would have liked (the Laura Linney story, for instance), but there isn't anything that sticks out like a sore thumb as being a waste of time. The movie may run 135 minutes, but the time flies by due to the sheer volume of intriguing stories being told. The performances are strong throughout, and most major cast members are given at least one moment in which they really get to shine. Consider the expression on Knightley's face when she watches the video of her wedding, or Firth's reaction when he watches his maid jump in the lake, or young Thomas Sangster's desperate attempt to capture the affection a young girl with his passionate drumming. These are all lovely little moments that say more than words could, and it's during such moments that Love Actually really excels.
The film benefits from a rather nice Blu-ray transfer, offering pleasing depth and detail. The film has a warm and colorful visual palette that never becomes too obnoxiously Christmas-y, if you know what I mean. Some of these holiday films tend to become almost oppressively colorful and seasonal, but this one generates visual warmth without ever hitting overkill. It's like a nice cup of hot chocolate rather than a stocking full of candy. Anyway, blacks are nice and deep throughout, and the level of detail is stellar. There's a very, very faint measure of natural grain present, but it's not distracting at all. The audio is fine, though there are a couple of moments when the soundtrack becomes a bit too boisterous for its own good. I did have to adjust the audio once or twice, but not dramatically. Everything is well-distributed and clean, though this isn't the sort of film that will give your speakers a real workout.
The extras are all ported over from the DVD version of the film. The only piece of real substance is a commentary with Curtis, Grant, Nighy and Sangster, and it's a very charming and amusing listen. Elsewhere, you get 37 minutes (!) of deleted scenes, a 10-minute making-of featurette, a brief look a the music in the film, and two music videos featuring Kelly Clarkson and Bill Nighy.
As I mentioned before, there certainly are moments that will make you roll your eyes. If the film has a major fault, it's that we can't be expected to be fully emotionally invested in every storyline, so the ones we don't connect with may seem mawkish rather than moving when they reach their climax.
Call it sentimental hogwash if you like, but Love Actually is a lovely holiday film. The Blu-ray release may not have enough to warrant an upgrade for those who have the DVD, but it certainly offers a respectable transfer is worth considering for those who haven't picked up the film.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (German)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Italian)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 135 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Music Videos