Why Love Actually remains the (second) greatest Christmas film ever
With Love Actually back on the big screen to celebrate its 20th anniversary, this is the perfect moment to remind ourselves of everything that makes it such an outstanding Christmas movie – a film which is, in fact, so very, very nearly perfect.
It’s a film that has got its failings, and certainly several of them, but the warmth of its heart, the quality of the performances and the superabundance of sheer, stand-out moments make it a festive film to see again and again and again. And the point is that no matter many times you watch it, you will always see something new. For instance, I’d never noticed before tonight that we see a photo of Sarah’s brother on her desk before we actually meet him. Clever
Our daughter made Love Actually non-negotiable mandatory Christmas Eve viewing about 15 years ago, and each year, you see more of the connections, more of the subtle cross-overs between the central love stories between which it flits. Actually, I always find it a little bit of an anxious watch, always slightly fearful that all its disparate bits won’t actually all come together in time – which, of course, is ludicrous. Of course, they always do. And they do so beautifully, sending you out on a festive high, bursting with Christmas goodwill to absolutely everyone.
Along the way, there are so many stand-out scenes: just a few favourites would be the fluttering pages of the soon to be drenched manuscript; the story-boarded admission of unrequited love; the surprise All You Need Is Love in the church; the improbable, impromptu carol singing from the copper: the rock ‘n’ roll interviews which are exactly as they ought to be (“Hello, Ant or Dec” is a line of sheer genius); and maybe above all Hugh Grant’s dancing Prime Minister as he celebrates the little bit of ass-kicking he’s just dished out to a lecherous US president.
Oddly, though, it’s a film which gets off to the most clunky of starts. Right at the beginning there is that awful piece of conjecture as to what the people in the doomed 9/11 flights might or might not have been thinking. Two years after 9/11 it seemed incredibly crass to shoehorn real-life tragedy into a soft-focus romcom. Twenty years later it doesn’t really seem any less yuck.
Of course, attitudes have changed in the meantime in some other respects. Repeated reference to the size of Natalie’s thighs jars horribly (Martine McCutcheon); and the Colin Frissell (Kris Marshall) storyline in which all he has to do is get on a plane to America for all the girls to start ripping his clothes off certainly plays into the wealth of online criticism which sees the film as male-centric, a film in which the women actually have very little agency in anything.
It’s a line of criticism which some people take far, far too far, though. The fact is that Love Actually for the most part is an absolute delight. The Prime Minister (Grant is superb) and Natalie storyline tugs at the heartstrings for all its total implausibility; Jamie (Colin Firth)’s heartbroken exile in which he finds new love is one of the highlights; and there is real depth in Emma Thompson’s tale as Karen faced with a wobbling husband Harry (Alan Rickman) tottering on the brink of infidelity. What a rat Heike Makatsch’s Mia is.
Lovely too is the tale of the widowed husband Liam Neeson tenderly caring for the lovesick Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). As ever, only the Sarah (Laura Linney) storyline truly grates, with her obsession with the brooding, handsome, utterly useless graphic designer Karl (Rodrigo Santoro), a guy whose default response to anything is to do nothing. On the other hand, Keira Knightley’s Juliet is radiant throughout – another of the film’s great delights.
Interesting too to catch a glimpse early on in the funeral scene of Chichester’s very own Edward Hardwicke as Sam's grandfather. You can catch more of Edward – a lovely man who lived in Chichester towards the end of his life – on the DVD extras. Sadly he’s been pretty much cut out of the actual film. But put it all together, and the film is a wonderful way to get into the Christmas spirit. It jars at the start, but shines at the end with its perfect Christmas message, that love really is all around us.
So yep, definitely it’s the second greatest Christmas film ever. The greatest, of course, and without the slightest shadow of a doubt is The Bishop's Wife (1947). See review here. Starring Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young, it returned to the big screens last Christmas for its 75th anniversary. Now there really is a film that doesn’t put a single foot wrong.