‘Love Actually’ (2003) Review

It’s been a few years since I’ve sat down and watched this, and with so many ‘Love Actually is actually problematic’ discussions going around lately, I decided to give it another watch with a “fresh set of eyes” to see if the current social climate would somehow diminish my enjoyment of Richard Curtis’s 2003 holiday rom-com.

It didn’t. Are there some issues with this movie? Of course there are. Natalie (Martine McCutcheon) is called chubby and comments are made about her butt and her thighs, although… Natalie is not fat. Not even close. The fat jokes simply made no sense and had no point other than to draw laughs. The majority of storylines focus on men getting their happy ever after (Mark is the exception, although he still gets an uplifting, favorable send-off) while the two storylines centering around women (Emma Thompson’s Karen and Laura Linney’s Sarah) end in infidelity and heartbreak.

There is also a distinct lack of diversity and LGBT representation. I’m pretty sure the movie could have ditched the Creepy Colin Goes to America to Get Laid storyline and reinserted the deleted scenes featuring Frances de la Tour and Anne Reid as a lesbian couple dealing with a terminal illness. Of course, had that happened we would have probably been talking about the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope that has plagued television and cinema, where the already sparse representation of the LGBT community gets killed off (most notably queer women).

So does Love Actually have problems? Yes, it does. But despite these issues, I was still able to love and appreciate Love Actually for what it is. A movie that shows us that love is ‘all around us’, whether it’s romantic, platonic, or unrequited. It’s complicated and messy. Awkward and charming. Heartbreaking and painful. Problematic!
There are some hits and misses in the movie. Some of the stories suffer from a lack of adequate screen time to develop the relationships, so to believe in some sudden, all-encompassing love is difficult. But some are a couple of well-developed, emotionally nuanced plots that make the movie worth a watch. I’ve ranked my favorite Love Actually storylines from worst to best below:

– Colin’s desperate need to get laid – Decides he’s the god of sex stuck on the wrong continent so he goes to America to pick up hot women and succeeds. Meh. His accent isn’t cute enough to dismiss his obnoxious behavior.

– Juliet, Mark, and Peter – ‘Self-preservation’ is no excuse for being a jerk to someone you’re supposedly in love with, even if that someone is your best friend’s new wife. Also, don’t confess said love on Christmas Eve while your best friend watches television upstairs. It’s creepy.

– Sarah and Karl – Sarah feels like she can’t follow through on a relationship with a man at work whom she’s been in love with for a couple of years because of her mentally ill brother, who has come to depend on her even though he lives in a care facility. If Karl knew what was good for him, he would be willing to give a try anyway, despite the constant phone calls. Boo on Karl.

– David and Natalie – There is an instant spark between the Prime Minister and his new employee, Natalie. She curses a lot, which is cute. He’s Hugh Grant as the Prime Minister, also cute. He decides to change his stance on foreign policy with the President of the United States (a smarmy Billy Bob Thornton) when he catches the President hitting on Natalie. Then he “redistributes” Natalie because of his attraction to her. Also, there are the fat jokes. The saving grace to this story is when David goes door to door to find out where Natalie lives and ends up singing a carol for three adorable little girls with one of his security guards.

– Jamie and Aurelia – Jamie’s brother is having an affair with his girlfriend, so he goes to France for a while to write a crime novel. There he meets Aurelia, a Portuguese woman who cleans his villa and cannot speak English. Jamie can’t speak Portuguese, so they learn to communicate in other ways. This is a cute story and honestly, the only one I feel could have been its own movie. I wanted to see them get past the language barrier and cultural differences on their way to love. But we don’t get a lot of development here, so the proposal at the end, while adorable, is insanely unrealistic. But… Colin Firth, so I’m willing to let it go.

– Billy Mack and Joe – Billy Mack is by far the most entertaining part of Love Actually. An aging rock star who records a horrible Christmas song only to find it becoming a surprise hit thanks to his No F*cks Given attitude while promoting the single, Billy is soon back on top and invited to Elton John’s Christmas bash. Turns out he would rather spend the holiday with his manager than a bunch of scantily clad women. “You turned out to be the fucking love of my life.”

– Harry and Karen (and Mia) – Okay, yes we know Mia is a tart. They’re sure to overplay just how much of a tart she is, with her overt flirtations with Harry, asking him for a pretty present in exchange for ‘everything’. She wears devil horns to the Christmas party and wears racy red lingerie while Karen (a devastatingly good Emma Thompson) laments that she feels like Pavarotti in her frumpier wardrobe. We get it. Mia bad. But as usual, Harry’s role in this extramarital flirtation/affair is sometimes lost in the Mia hate. As painful as this storyline is, it’s also one of the more believable ones. Harry and Karen have a home, and two kids and a relationship that feels comfortable, though not overly passionate. Harry’s attention is caught by his attractive assistant and he buys her a gold necklace while gifting his wife a CD she probably already owns. The brilliance of Love Actually is captured in only one scene, where Karen discovers Harry’s infidelity and stands alone in their bedroom while Joni Mitchell plays. She’s not allowed to lose control or release her heartbreak. She has to keep it together as not to spoil her family’s Christmas. Emma Thompson is truly the movie’s MVP.

– John and Judy – This story doesn’t get enough credit when people discuss Love Actually. We get to witness their cute, awkward courtship as they simulate fake sex as stand-ins on a porno. Perfectly normal and charming, this is by far one of the best stories in Love Actually. I wish they’d had more screentime.

– Daniel, Sam and Joanna – Heartfelt and pure, this was much more about Daniel and Sam’s relationship as stepfather and son after a tragic loss than it is about Sam’s crush on Joanna. This is one of the only storylines we get a true conclusion to, and is it a rom-com if there’s not an airport chase scene?

Love Actually is not in my yearly Christmas rotation, but I do consider it an above-average holiday film and rom-com. It’s not perfect, but it’s a warm, feel-good movie with some wonderful performances, and the end montage of friends and family greeting each other at the airport will surely tug at your heartstrings.

Author: Romona Comet

"I'm probably watching a rom-com right now."