Which bit of Love Actually disturbs you the most? For me, personally, it’s when Kris Marshall’s character is about to board a plane to find some hot American chicks to bang, and he bellows, “Here comes Colin Frissell… and he’s got a bigggg knobbbb.” Obviously if I saw the man from My Family shouting that at an airport, it would ruin not just my holiday but my entire Christmas. But what’s bothering me more about Love Actually, actually, is the way that bashing Richard Curtis’s Now 45 compilation of a Christmas film has become an annual sport. At this time of year, the takes really are all around. People declare this fluffy film problematic. Anti-feminist. Practically the anti-Christ. Earlier this week, Jeremy Vine’s Channel 5 show even had a segment that explored the film’s “red flags” and asked if we should stop watching it all together.
This seems a bit intense for something that most of us just watch on Christmas Eve when we’re a bit tired and we’ve hit the Baileys, but we still have presents to wrap. Besides, not everyone thinks Love Actually is propaganda for rich, white, turtleneck-wearing men; some people actually like it. This week, a special 20-year anniversary show, The Laughter & Secrets of Love Actually: 20 Years On, saw Curtis, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant and others reminisce about making the movie, allowing us to wonder once more if Laura Linney ever did get with her hot colleague, or if Thompson and Alan Rickman’s marriage would survive his cold betrayal.
And yet over the past two decades, the film has been reappraised so many times that you’d think it was more Falling Down than a festive Four Weddings. It all began with Lindy West’s much-imitated takedown for Jezebel, but that riffed on the film’s silliness in general, not just its gender politics. (Why, for example, is Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) making a Christmas record five weeks before Christmas? Seems disorganised.) It is, of course, very British to take the piss out of things, especially when they’re as sincere as Curtis is. “I do think the way to think about life is that every day has the potential to be just gorgeous,” is something he genuinely said in the reunion special. “What you have to remember is, when he writes about love, he means it,” said Grant. Linney told The Independent that the film works because of his “unique optimism”. But in our hyper-cynical social media age, how could a film that uses a Wet Wet Wet song as its philosophy not be derided? I sometimes wonder if our allergy to silliness and sentimentality is a bit of a shame; romcoms can’t survive such arch self-consciousness.
For the record, I’m not saying Love Actually is a great film. When it was first released, The New York Times described it as an “indigestible Christmas pudding from the British whimsy factory”; The Guardian said that Grant wore “the suppressed quizzical smirk of an actor who is clearly going to burst out laughing the moment he hears ‘Cut!’”. The Independent’s two-star review lamented the film’s over-the-top tendencies, saying that Curtis “cannot look at a pudding without overegging it”.
These comments are all accurate, and there are things we can legitimately criticise Love Actually for. Firstly, there’s the lack of diversity, which Curtis admitted this week makes him “uncomfortable”. Then there’s the fact that all of the relationships are heterosexual (a same-sex storyline, with Frances De La Tour and Anne Reid, was cut). And, finally, yes, Andrew Lincoln’s character might have gone about things slightly less like a serial killer. But I’m also not sure that the film’s reputation as a cloying male fantasy full of subservient women is entirely fair. We see Nighy’s mordant, washed-up rock star realise no one really loves him. Linney’s character puts caring for her brother above her own desires, because life is hard and sometimes people have to do that. Liam Neeson has to watch his kid’s first crush while grieving his wife. And Emma Thompson’s quietly devastated matriarch learning of her husband’s secret affair? That scene of her crying in the bedroom is one of her best performances in anything.
No one ever said Love Actually should be a manual for a life. It serves another, perfectly adequate purpose. So, pour yourself a Baileys, finish wrapping the presents, and let this silly, dumb movie get you through Christmas Eve. It’s not the anti-Christ, guys. It’s just a Richard Curtis film.