The joke of a flight from Edinburgh to London feels like it has landed barely minutes after takeoff. Quickly you’re through to the arrivals gate, engulfed by the phagocyte like rabble of travellers arriving home from a range of destinations, some more exotic than Fife. Did a heart-warming reunion await me? Alas, no. Just a text: “Let me know when you’re on the tube.”
While for many the anguish of exams has only just concluded, the rest of the world has been embracing the spirit of the festive season. What better way to join them then but to rewatch the 2003 Christmas classic “Love Actually“, an ensemble film starring a veritable smorgasbord of acclaimed British thespians. However, after my third viewing I was left askew, not by the fact that “Jump (For My Love)” is somehow heard all around Number 10, nor because Sam makes it as far as the gate of the airport in a post-9/11 world without being tased, and not even due to its questionable classification as a Christmas film, “The Lobster? […] In the nativity play?”. Instead, I was thrown by its failure to convey the eponymous theme of love.
Before you sue me, or take out a contract to have me killed, I want to make it clear that I like the film. This is also not a review, just a concerningly well researched satirical investigation into every single relationship in the story. I took notes. Enjoy.
The centrepiece examples of Romance are as follows: David (Hugh Grant) and Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), Sarah (Laura Linney) and Karl (Rodrigo Santoro), Harry (Alan Rickman) and Karen (Emma Thompson), Harry and Mia (Heike Makatsch), Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), Judy (Joanna Page) and John (Martin Freeman), Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Juliet (Keira Knightley), Mark (Andrew Lincoln) and Juliet, Harriet (Shannon Elizabeth) and Colin (Kris Marshall), Carla (Denise Richards) and Tony (Abdul Salis), Daniel (Liam Neeson) and Carol (Claudia Schiffer), and Joanna (Olivia Olson) and Sam (Thomas Sangster).
Of these 12 relationships, five are based on love at first sight, four suffer from a lack of communication, three fail altogether, and one is an extramarital love interest which signals the collapse of a family. Maybe, by being the antithesis of Romantic, “Love Actually” is the most accurate representation of love ever put to film? The most functional relationship, imbued with excellently executed irony by virtue of their shared profession, is between John and Judy. The rest are slightly problematic at best, and entirely dysfunctional at worst.
Love at first sight is a prominent theme epitomised by the PM’s first encounter with Natalie, accompanied by a cliché clarinet passage. However, love of a shallow or aesthetic quality is also seen in Jamie and Aurelia’s relationship, divided by a language barrier only bridged at the conclusion of the film when Jamie proposes, and Sam and Joanna’s, where Sam believes he is completely unknown to his love interest. Should we be concerned that Joanna is also the name of his dead mother, a modern maternal reworking of the Oedipus complex? Unlikely, yet still a strange detail which casts a shadow on the kindness of Neeson’s character Daniel, who has a twinkle in his eye at his first sighting of Carol at the nativity play. Colin Frissel charms Wisconsin with nothing but his Basildon accent and pronunciation of “bottle”, bringing back Harriet for himself and Carla who leaves Tony incredulously agape when she steps out of the departure gate.
As for the iconic “carol singers” scene, look at it this way: Mark films Juliet, his friend’s wife, voyeuristically at her wedding and then secretly professes his love to her when she is settled into marriage, nothing more needs to be said.
The film exhorts grand gestures of love, the gospel choir and congregation’s rendition of “All You Need is Love”, picking up the drums for the sole interest of increasing your appeal to others and not out of a passion for the instrument, learning Portuguese to dramatically propose in public, and the final airport sprint. Even the PM’s iconic “David Beckham’s left foot” speech cannot escape criticism; though left open to interpretation, the glances at Natalie suggest that the PM’s stance is entirely a consequence of her encounter with the president (Billy Bob Thornton). Though such simple politics would sadly not go amiss amid our current frenzy. On the other hand, if a grand gesture will not suffice to surmount love’s challenges, the film enlightens us to the fact that there is really no solution and you should frankly give up and resume your miserable uneventful existence. Sarah’s constant phone calls to her institutionalised brother Michael shows the strength of her sibling bond, yet no balance is struck between that and her own life. To drive the final blade into that sub-plot, neither of the pair feature in the final one-month later reprise, never seen happily together to the accompaniment of The Beach Boys.
However, as my mother makes it clear as day, the most wounding moment is the undoing of Harry and Karen. While watching the film among friends, the moment Harry buys the necklace for Mia elicits visceral anger and the occasional heckle; even Rowan Atkinson’s comic relief cannot provide salvation. It does, however, lead to the most stunning moment of acting in the film. The brutally simple scene of Karen (Emma Thompson) quitting to her room, crying to Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”, before returning downstairs to her children and heading to the nativity, breaking no signs of distress, is a masterclass in acting and a faithful portrayal of the attitudes to emotion and family which characterise the British psyche.
This may appear to be a comprehensive and resolute condemnation of “Love Actually“, but it does nail one thing, platonic love. The father and son love between Sam and Daniel shows two characters coming to terms with a shared grief and respectfully continuing with their lives, Karen supporting Daniel throughout. Karen is also shown to be close with her brother David, the PM, though her reliance of him as a shoulder to cry upon is not elaborated on much before the Nativity begins. Billy (Bill Nighy) has a revelation where he discovers his manager Joe (Gregor Fisher), who he has spent his life with, is the true friend that he wants to spend the night of Christmas Eve with.
The final verdict then, “Love Actually” runs for 135 mins yet endeavours to tie together the lives of approximately 30 characters, from significant to those that are rather irrelevant; 270 seconds for each, it is not an easy task. Yet it works, and though the relationships are messy, they come together in a way that has pleased the masses for 15 consecutive years. If anything, healthy relationships may be far more anodyne and less faithful to reality.
But what does it matter anyway? I’ve rented out my flat and have bought a one-way ticket to Milwaukee Wisconsin.