The film deserves more credit than the critics are willing to give it.
Love Actually is perhaps the Marmite of British romantic comedies – you either love it, or want to self-mutilate whenever it is replayed over the holiday season.
Almost 15 years later, Love Actually still manages to be as divisive as when it was first released. And this divisiveness was palpable when a Love Actually short sequel for Red Nose Day 2017 was announced. While fans of the film revelled in nostalgia, non-believers wasted little time to express their displeasure and reiterate their criticisms.
Hadley Freeman accuses the film of “killing the romcom” on The Guardian. Holly Williams of The Independent calls it an “outdated…male fantasy” and “out-of-step with modern feminism”. Their main criticisms are that the film is sexist and heteronormative, and its portrayal of love is lazy at best, downright disturbing at worst.
Indeed, certain elements of the film deserve their harshest critics. Out of nine plotlines, only one has a female main character. The plethora of fat jokes does not endear itself to progressive viewers. The storyline of Kris Marshall’s character, in which Colin, an awkward Brit, denounces British women and travels to America with the sole purpose of picking up girls, carries absolutely no substance. It is, as Williams noted, nothing but a male fantasy wrapped in anti-America sentiments that somehow succeeds in disparaging both British and American women (although its depiction of American presidents might go down quite well nowadays, given the current political situation). And the fact that a lesbian plotline was dropped can make the most ardent fans of the film wish for what could have been.
However, the rest of the film deserves more credit than the critics are willing to give it.
One of the biggest criticisms that Love Actually faces is that it portrays a type of shady, lustful, and superficial love that gives rise to grand but superfluous romantic gestures, and denies older or more independent women their happy endings.
This reading of the film clings onto a notion of love as profound romance: the type of love that comes from intimate understanding, that endures trials and hardship, that culminates in all-consuming (and if you are lucky, long-lasting) relationships. This is the type of love celebrated in When Harry Met Sally, Notting Hill, 13 Going on 30, and every other romcom. Love Actually, with 9 intertwined plotlines to tell in 136 minutes, has no chance of successfully portraying the type of love.
But this is also exactly the type of love that Love Actually doesn’t even try to tell.
To quote Hugh Grant’s PM David (hah) in Red Nose Actually, “it’s not just romantic love that is all around.” There is more to love than just romantic attraction. Love can be impersonal (e.g. netizens’ collective love for cats), or interpersonal. Interpersonal love itself is a myriad of multi-faceted emotions that can blossom between family members, friends, and strangers met on the street. The Ancient Greeks had four distinguished forms of love: agápe (spiritual love, in the words of C.S. Lewis), éros (intimate love), philia (friendship, or love between equals), and storge (familial love). In Love Actually, love is even more diverse.
Love is admiration and appreciation. This is what drives Thomas Brodie-Sangster’s precocious character, Sam, to take up the drums to impress “the coolest girl in school”, played by Olivia Olson, with whom he has never spoken. This impels Williams to ask why Sam must resort to elaborate schemes to “trick [his crush] into fancying him” instead of approaching her straightaway.
Well, love doesn’t come on its own. Often, crushes are accompanied by a crippling nervousness that drives people out of their rational mind and leaves them struggling for words in front of the recipient of their affection. It’s never easy to strike up conversations with your crushes, so why chide a little boy for wanting to gain some advantages by presenting a version of himself that he believes would make a good impression on his crush?
Besides, the main star of Sam’s plotline isn’t his puppy love, but his relationship with his stepfather, played by Liam Neeson. After the recent death of the child’s mother, the woman that has brought them together in the first place, the man and the boy find themselves in an awkward place, both unsure how to reach out to each another. Sam’s despairing crush allows them to bond, to come together as a family.
“Her name’s Joanna?”
“Yeah, I know, same as mum.”
This familial affection is also the driver of Sarah’s (Laura Linney) subplot. Sarah is a graphic designer whose devotion to her mentally ill brother forces any romantic encounters to take a back seat. Freeman takes this to mean that “[Sarah]’s not allowed to have a boyfriend because … men can’t bear for their woman to have another man in their life, even a sibling.” Williams agrees: “In rom-com land, apparently a man cannot share a woman with another man, even if it is her sick brother. And a woman cannot have her own life or responsibilities; she must at all times be available to service his needs.”
Such criticism misses the point of the story. In Love Actually, and in real life, romantic love is not everything; sometimes, non-romantic relationships are first priority. When confronted with a choice between the two, Sarah chooses the latter. She chooses to be by her brother’s side than continue a tryst with her longstanding crush. And she doesn’t need a man who couldn’t understand her decision.
The friendship between Billy Mack (Bill Nighty) and his long-suffering manager Joe (Gregor Fisher) is another non-romantic love that Love Actually celebrates. The former rock and roll legend ditches a glitzy Christmas party to vegetate on the couch with his one and only friend who has stuck with him through thick and thin, because friendship, as C.S. Lewis puts it, “like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself … has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” Sure, having Mack and Joe get together in a romantic sense – as Williams wishes for – would make Love Actually more representative and progressive. However, that would also detract from the film’s best theme: that platonic love is no less fulfilling than romance.
But Love Actually isn’t altogether devoid of romantic love. The film depicts romance in various shades, each equally charming and awkward. There’s the budding romance between John (Martin Freeman, hah) and Judy (Joanna Page) – professional body doubles who have spent days naked onset together but still fumble through the very first step of their relationship.
There’s the love between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurélia (Lúcia Moniz) that “are so transparency [sic], they don’t need evidential proof [sic]”. Williams labels their love “at best shallow, at worst deranged”, since they have never had a single conversation before Jamie proposes in horrible Portuguese. But that’s not true: in the film, they speak with each other frequently, he in English, she in Portuguese. Spoken word is not the only way to communicate; there’s body language, intimate gestures and subtle glances.
And of course, there’s the Cinderella-like romance between David and Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). In true fairy-tale style, David professes his love to Natalie by conducting a door to door search that ends with a big damn kiss on stage. This plotline is often criticised as portraying women as passive, pretty, petite wallflowers that can only wait “for a suitor to … turn up like a deranged intruder on her front steps”.
It’s true that the ladies of Love Actually don’t get the spotlight they deserve, but this doesn’t mean that they sit around doing nothing. As Jamie struggles though his Portuguese lessons, Aurélia picks up English. David is spurred on by Natalie’s message on a Christmas card. Their actions are quiet and subtle, sometimes on hinted at, but speak of strength and love nonetheless.
There’s love that bears fruit, and there’s love that is barren: unrequited love, and betrayed love. Love Actually’s portrayals of these types of love receive strong criticisms. Mark’s (Andrew Lincoln) one-sided feelings are often branded as stalker-like, shallow, and salacious. He never talks to Juliet (Keira Knightley), but can’t take his eyes, (and his camera), off her. Some may find Mark’s actions creepy to say the least, but they are after all another side of love: the irresistible attraction that is so hard to quench.
Some may also take his Christmas confession to be morally dubious, but it’s established that he expects nothing in return. What he does is simply confess his feelings, because everyone deserves to know that they are loved, even more so because it’s Christmas, and we spread affection at Christmas. And as Emma Green writes in one of the most eloquent defences of Love Actually, Juliet’s subsequent kiss “recognizes how human it is to love someone but not be loved back in the same way, but both she and [Mark] seem to understand that having feelings for someone doesn’t make it right to break up a marriage or destroy a friendship.”
Not all love ends in marriage, and not all marriage ends in eternal bliss. In the last plotline of Love Actually, Karen (Emma Thompson) is devastated by her husband’s, Harry (Alan Rickman), affair with his assistant at work Mia (Heike Makatsch). Most critics praise Emma, yet denounce her lack of happy endings. Williams blames Love Actually for showing that “only women who are sexy and make their men happy get their own happy endings.”
Yet I don’t think this is the message the film wants to convey. Marital love is imperfect and unpredictable; as Green wisely observes: in marriage, “the idea of definitively ‘overcoming an obstacle’ seems much less authentic than ‘just trying to figure it out’.” Love Actually simply wants to paint this picture, however heartrending it is.
Its broken hearts aside, Love Actually is generally frowned upon for its “overly-optimistic, saccharine” version of love that’s all about hackneyed grand gestures and not enough deep meaningful conversations. Freeman seems to suggest that since the film is now too estranged from reality, enjoyment is curtailed, and viewers can see through its sugary façade and come face to face with its rotten core.
I beg to differ. It’s precisely because the film presents a stylised version of love, so different from what the real world throws at us, that we enjoy watching it again and again. It reminds us of the frivolous, spontaneous, inexplicable elements of love, of which we sometimes lose sight. It shows us all the shapes and sizes of love, to remind us that “love is all around us,” especially at Christmas time, when the cheesiest Christmas tune stuck in our head can turn us into a bundle of sentiments, and make life a little more bearable.