‘When I was four,’ said writer/director Richard Curtis, ‘I fell in love with a girl called Jill and then at seven, with a girl called Tracy. I was always very, very liable to fall in love. In my twenties and thirties, I got my heart broken really badly. The three things that matter most to me in life and give me most of my joy and all of my sorrow are friends, family, and love, which is why I write about them. Super heroes or serial killers or armies, it’s not my business to write about that.’[i]
Through a string of feature films in the 1990s and 2000s Richard Curtis has established himself as the king of English romantic comedy. While rom-coms are by no means the only string in his bow – he co-wrote Mr Bean and Blackadder, created The Vicar of Dibley and even wrote a well-received episode of Doctor Who – they are his most successful and most widely regarded works. He made an enormous impact with Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994, which he wrote and Mike Newell directed. Subsequent features like Notting Hill (1999) and Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) only cemented his reputation.
Of his numerous films it is Love Actually that impresses me the most. It’s an ensemble comedy-drama, set in the five weeks before Christmas, and weaves together nine separate plotlines of people falling in and out of love with one another. It’s a structure that works brilliantly, because what it gives us in effect is nine romantic comedies at the same time. The film has an overall running time of 136 minutes: take out five minutes for the closing credits and that leaves just 14 and a half minutes for each plot thread. Economy is key. By only presenting the scenes absolutely necessary to express each story Curtis has managed to condense nine feature films into one. For the busy filmgoer that is remarkable value for money.
It’s also easy to overlook just how difficult writing, directing and editing together a film like this must be. Across the Atlantic Garry Marshall, a talented writer/director in his own right, has tried and failed to replicate Love Actually twice now with 2010’s Valentine’s Day and 2011’s New Year’s Eve. Like all genuine magical feats, Love Actually superficially looks to be remarkably simple. It isn’t. Put one scene out of place, or stretch a storyline out too much, or cut too many moments from one or another romance, and the entire house of cards might collapse.
The film marked Curtis’ transition from being a screenwriter to becoming a screenwriter and director. This was not a surprising transition to make, since Curtis’ dialogue-heavy, rather precise screenplays tended to dictate the tone of his films more than their directors anyway. As both writer and director he had complete control over the artistic direction of the film, and I think that’s why it feels like the most Curtis-esque movie with which he’s been involved.
‘I can’t remember how Love Actually started,’ admitted Curtis. ‘I think it may be that I decided that films take me such a long time – about three years, in the end – and I thought that if I wanted to go on writing romantic films, I would spend the rest of my life doing it. So I decided that I would try to write nine or 10 of them all at the same time. I went away on a long holiday with my family and every day, during my walk, it was my job to come up with a story. I would think around the world that I knew, of little incidents from my past and the lives of people I knew, and slowly the storyline for Love Actually came to me.’[ii]
Curtis’ first draft of the screenplay ran for 170 pages and featured 13 different plot threads. Rewrites eliminated four of those subplots and brought the script down to a more manageable length. Even so, at more than two-and-a-quarter hours Love Actually remains one of the longest romantic comedies ever made.
Curtis deliberately cast his film with a mixture of famous faces and comparative unknowns, although by skill or luck even the unknown actors he cast back in 2003 seem to have become rather famous; Keira Knightley through Pirates of the Carribbean, Andrew Lincoln via The Walking Dead, Martin Freeman with The Hobbit and Sherlock, Chiwetel Ejiofor thanks to 12 Years a Slave and so on. Even barely-there supporting players like January Jones (Mad Men) have managed to make a name for themselves in the subsequent decade since the film’s release.
I think it’s the broad cast of famous actors, the variety in the storylines and the Christmas setting that have all combined to make Love Actually such a perennially popular film. A lot of viewers, myself included, will dig out a copy and watch it every Christmas season. Television networks favour broadcasting it each December because it’s an almost cast-iron guarantee of viewer ratings. It is arguable that the film is more popular now than it was when first released.
Love Actually was released in cinemas worldwide in November 2003, but it was shot more than a year earlier. Principal photography commenced on 2 September 2002 and continued for 13 weeks. While the overwhelming majority of the film was shot in studio and on location in London, additional photography also took place in Vidauban and Marseilles, France. By all accounts it was a remarkably smooth shoot for a first-time director, running only two days over schedule.
The opening montage at Heathrow Airport was filmed by a dedicated camera crew that recorded the arrivals hall for a week. Each time the team saw a hug or kiss that they thought was particularly cinematic, they approached the people photographed for permission to use it in the film.
The inspiration for the montage came from Curtis’ own experience at Los Angeles International Airport some years previously. ‘I had to stand at the airport for about an hour waiting for a package,’ he said. ‘It was an extraordinary sight to see – these really ordinary faces of people looking bored while they waited suddenly exploding with all of this love and affection. You could see the complexity of their relationships right there in their faces.’[iii]
Following this opening prologue we are rapidly introduced to the film’s various romantic plotlines and pairings. It’s worth assessing each of them in turn.
The first storyline follows ageing rock star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy), who is recording a Christmas-themed cover of the pop hit “Love is All Around”. It’s remarkably direct of Curtis to use that song in Love Actually, since an earlier cover of the song – performed by popular pop group Wet Wet Wet – featured prominently in Four Weddings and a Funeral almost a decade earlier. It gives the sequence a nice element of subversion: while Mack is participating in a cynical cash-in of an already popular song, so too Curtis is arguably cashing in on the popularity of his own earlier screenplays.
In casting the role of Billy Mack, Curtis narrowed his choices down between two actors. One of them, Bill Nighy agreed to play the role. Curtis oddly continues to keep silent on his other choice to this day.
‘I know it’s disappointing,’ said Nighy, ‘but there wasn’t one person I was trying to emulate in playing Billy Mack. You’re supposed to give up reading NME when you’re 39 and I gave up at 54. I was obsessed with rock stars, so my character is an amalgam of several.’[iv]
Nighy subsequently admitted that he ‘felt bad about the having-sex-with-Britney-Spears gag. Luckily, or unluckily, I’ve never met her, so I’ve never had to account for myself.’[v]
It’s interesting that the first storyline we see in the film is one of the more oblique. It doesn’t focus on romantic love at all, but rather the closest of friendships between Mack and his long suffering manager Joe (Gregor Fisher). Mack’s desperate quest to reclaim his long-lost popularity may succeed in the end, since his deliberately awful song does become the UK’s number one single, but it’s worthless to him without Joe to share it. It’s important that this storyline exists, because it expands Curtis’ remit beyond his usual comfort zone. It would have been easy to devote the entire film to flustering upper-middle class English men struggling to woo beautiful American women. That Curtis actively resists that temptation makes Love Actually a much stronger film.
Nighy’s performance is the broadest of the film, and as a result he tends to dominate in the mind. It’s helped by his getting most of the film’s best lines.
The Prime Minister storyline was one that Curtis had already been developing for some time as a feature film in its own right. ‘We had a Prime Minister named Ted Heath,’ said Curtis, ‘who was a bachelor, and I always thought, “What would have happened had he fallen in love with someone? It would be so weird that this person would be meant to be running the country, but he’d actually spent it falling in love.”’[vi]
It’s no surprise, given how extensively Curtis had already developed the “Prime Minister in love” concept, that it emerges as the segment most like Curtis’ earlier scripts. This familiarity is enhanced by the inclusion of regular collaborator Hugh Grant in the role of David, the Prime Minister. It’s a slightly more authoritative performance than he has previously been required to deliver, but only slightly: he’s still ever-so bumbling and awkward.
EastEnders star Martine McCutcheon was cast as Natalie, a new member of David’s service staff with whom he develops a romantic affection. Like much of the supporting cast, McCutcheon was a comparative unknown internationally. Unlike her co-stars, she has by-and-large remained one.
While the Billy Mack thread demonstrated Love Actually’s strengths, to a large extent the David and Natalie thread demonstrates its greatest weakness. There is a severe power imbalance between the two leads, and it makes the narrative very slightly unpleasant once you start to think about it. Natalie is hired to serve David tea. He falls in love, but then sees her being sexually harassed by the President (Billy Bob Thornton). He delivers a rousing political speech against the President as a result, then has Natalie transferred out of Downing Street. It’s never clear why: it seems like a case where Curtis as writer wanted to ambiguously suggest David was paranoid Natalie was flirting, whereas Curtis as director shot the scene as if Natalie is a clear visible victim of harassment. When David realises his mistake, it’s he who takes the initiative and tracks her down to apologise and rekindle their budding romance. It’s admittedly all very well played by Hugh Grant – to be honest this is probably my favourite of his comedy performances – but the manner in which the story denies Natalie any agency is rather troubling.
A replica of 10 Downing Street – both the interior and exterior – was constructed at Shepperton Studios. Prior to designing the sets, producer designer Jim Clay and Richard Curtis were given a two-hour personal tour of the actual building by then Chancellor of the Exchequer (and future Prime Minister) Gordon Brown.
Plot thread number three: the love triangle between Peter and Juliet, who we see getting married in the film’s opening scenes, and Peter’s best man Mark – who harbours a secret desire for Juliet that he has never admitted. Juliet is played by Keira Knightley, then between a notable supporting role in Bend It Like Beckham and the international superstardom that followed Pirates of the Caribbean. Peter is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mark by Andrew Lincoln. Immediately prior to casting Love Actually, Richard Curtis had seen the play Blue/Orange in London. The play’s cast comprised Lincoln, Ejiofor and Bill Nighy. It seems to have had no small influence on Curtis while casting.
Mark surprises Peter and Juliet at the end of their wedding ceremony with a full band secreted around the church. The inspiration for the impromptu concert came from the funeral of puppeteer and director Jim Henson, which not only featured musical performances but a full Dixieland brass band leading the funerary procession out of the cathedral.
When Juliet accidentally discovers Mark’s obsession with her he runs away, but in a closing scene towards the end of the film he resolves his love for her (in a sequence directly lifted from a Bob Dylan music film) and moves on.
If the David and Natalie thread was a little problematic, the Peter, Juliet and Mark thread is quite genuinely difficult. Mark’s behaviour is framed by the screenplay and the direction as a tragic unrequited love, except when it’s observed more objectively it is clear it is more akin to stalking her. We are invited to engage with his torment, yet it’s difficult to side with a man who is secretly coveting his best friend’s wife.
Once again it’s the female protagonist who is denied agency. Mark suffers his terrible romantic anguish, Peter is secure in the knowledge that he’s married the woman he loves, and it’s Juliet who discovers Mark’s secret, and then not only silently accepts his climactic apology but kisses him for it as well. ‘Her role relies so much just on her being gorgeous,’ Curtis said in one interview, which is a very telling admission.[vii] He wrote into the film a very difficult emotional situation, and then took the easiest route out of it.
What’s strange is that in the fourth thread, focusing on Sarah (Laura Linney) and Karl (Rodrigo Santoro), Curtis deliberately refuses to take the easy route. Sarah has been infatuated with Karl for several years, but is prevented from acting out of fear of abandoning her mentally unwell brother. When push comes to shove, and her brother starts telephoning her during the beginnings of a sexual encounter, she abandons Karl and takes care of her brother.
Laura Linney’s performance here is exceptional. It is awkward, wounded and – unlike many of the other characters – very believable. ‘I got a letter in the mail from Richard Curtis,’ she said, ‘saying that he’d been trying to cast this part, and he’d kept saying to his partner, Emma Freud, that he’d been looking for a “Laura Linney-type,” and she said, “Why don’t you ask Laura Linney?” My part was originally written for another Brit, but he asked me to do it, and I was so excited to be asked.’[viii]
Shooting Love Actually proved to be a challenge for Linney, as she was already contracted to perform in Clint Eastwood’s thriller Mystic River at the same time. In the end Linney performed both roles at the same time, flying between the United Kingdom and the USA to shoot in London and Boston on different days.
Sarah and Karl’s story is an extraordinary set of scenes. It helps to leaven the overt sweetness of some of the other plot threads. It does not have a happy ending. It’s still all about love, it is simply that Sarah’s love for her brother exceeds her budding affection for Karl. ‘Sometimes life doesn’t allow relationships to happen,’ said Linney. ‘That’s what the tension of the story was: it was driven by the pull of and the distraction, the worry, the concern, and the fear of not being there for someone else even when it’s against your best interest. And actually, a lot of people over the years have come up to me and said, “That was my story”.’[ix]
Plot thread number five focuses on Daniel (Liam Neeson), a recently widowed father of love-struck schoolboy Sam (Thomas Sangster, now performing as Thomas Brodie-Sangster). This is actually quite a difficult strand of the story to enjoy, since real-life tragedy has to a degree overtaken the film. In 2009 Neeson’s actual wife Natasha Richardson died in a skiing accident, so watching him go through the motions of a husband’s grief suddenly feels rather invasive and uncomfortable. It also highlights just how brief and abrupt his grieving process actually is. He is burying his wife in the film’s first act, and meeting a new girlfriend in the third (one played, rather improbably, by model Claudia Schiffer).
Sam’s story, however, in which he takes up drumming to play at his primary school Christmas concert and woo his American classmate Joanna (Olivia Olson), is the sweetest thing going on in this movie. It’s remarkably naïve and utterly unbelievable, but also deeply heart-warming and emotionally effective. Sam’s desperate run through Heathrow Airport to see Joanna before she leaves for the USA is, to my mind at least, the film’s high point. Its strength is derived partly from Craig Armstrong’s swelling orchestral score and partly from an astonishing performance by Thomas Brodie-Sangster. ‘It was my first feature film,’ said Brodie-Sangster, ‘and I really didn’t know how big it was until the read-through. I didn’t know who Richard Curtis was, to be honest. I just thought the film would be fun and was up for it. Then I get to the read-through and people like Hugh Grant, Colin Firth and Alan Rickman walked through the door.’[x]
This plot thread also exploits Neeson’s rarely seen talent for comedy. Prior to Love Actually, his career is littered with worthy dramas like Michael Collins and Schindler’s List. More recently he’s been busy working as Hollywood’s biggest name in action cinema. In between he shows an oddly humorous and sensitive side: it’s a pity he hasn’t done more comedy, because he’s great at it.
The other plot thread that Curtis co-opted from an incomplete project was the story of Jamie (Colin Firth), a socially awkward crime novelist who retreats to rural France after he discovers his brother and his wife are having an affair. While writing his next book he falls in love with his Portuguese housekeeper Aurélia (Lúcia Moniz), in a romance complicated by the fact that he doesn’t speak Portuguese and she doesn’t speak English.
It is not a surprise to learn that Curtis had already been developing Jamie’s story well before writing Love Actually, because like the David and Natalie romance it is one that could easily be taken out of the film and expanding into its own fully-fledged movie. There is something rather sweet about a romance in which we can see and hear what each character is saying (Aurélia’s dialogue is subtitled) but each character remains hopelessly in the dark. If there’s a criticism to made it’s that once again a gender imbalance is at work: this is, once you strip out the individual circumstances of each storyline, another plot thread in which a rich, comparatively powerful man falls in love with the female hired help.
Colin Firth was and remains one of the United Kingdom’s most popular actors, and doesn’t really need introducing here. Lúcia Moniz was a well-established pop singer and actor in Portugal. Love Actually was her first international production.
By all accounts the French shoot was the most difficult part of the whole production. The lake in which Jamie and Aurélia swim was only 18 inches deep, requiring both actors to mime swimming while crouched on their knees, Firth had a severe allergic reaction to a mosquito bite, and the entire shoot was delayed by one of the worst electrical storms to hit the region in years.
Not content with his main narratives, Curtis also threw in two very short and truncated sequences – essentially two sets of comedy sketches. The first sees Martin Freeman and Joanna Page play stand-ins for movie star sex scenes, so that the lighting directors can develop their lighting cues using their naked bodies. It’s amusing enough – neither here nor there, really – but hardly an integral part of the film. The second mini-narrative sees Kris Marshall play a deluded waiter named Colin who buys a ticket to the USA to meet attractive American women, and successfully dives into a threesome on his first night in Wisconsin. It’s easily the worst part of the film: pointless, crude and coming across as little more than some kind of sexual power fantasy. Several popular American actors came in to play Colin’s sexual conquests, including Elisha Cuthbert (24), Shannon Elizabeth (American Pie) and Denise Richards (The World is not Enough).
During the film’s denouement, Colin triumphantly returns with a hot American girlfriend, as well as a second girl for his friend. It’s the most egregiously sexist part of the entire film, actively repellent to watch and grossly distasteful. It’s difficult to understand what Curtis was attempting to do here: subvert a stereotype? I can’t quite work it out, so will assume it was unsuccessful.
I have mentioned issues of gender imbalance three times now; it’s probably worth pausing to ask what exactly is going on in Love Actually? It is a genuinely warm and appealing film. It boasts numerous wonderful performances. There are scenes that, every time I see them, are guaranteed to raise a smile or bring tears to my eyes. If you are not a fan of romantic comedies, it’s unlikely to move you, but if you are then it’s easily one of the best ones made anywhere in the past 25 years.
So why does it keep throwing in scene after scene of powerful men and subservient women? It is not as if this is a broader trend in Curtis’ films. Both Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill featured a male protagonist, sure, but in both cases it was his female co-star (played by Andie McDowell and Julia Roberts, respectively) who held the bulk of the control. Immediately prior to Love Actually Curtis had written the screenplay to Bridget Jones’s Diary, a film presented exclusively from the perspective of its titular female star.
Part of the problem may lie in the film’s structure: as noted earlier, Curtis has given himself less than 15 minutes for each storyline to play out. ‘There’s no subtlety here,’ admitted Colin Firth in one interview. ‘Part of the reason we have to be so bold is that we had very little time to tell our story, each (of us). We would have four or five scenes in order to develop the whole concept of a story. You tend to have to use broader strokes.’[xi]
For Curtis it seems broader strokes mean reliance on archetypes. Love Actually tells well-worn stories that feel comfortable to a mainstream audience. The tea lady who has a romance with the Prime Minister is, once you scrape away the details, essentially a retelling of Cinderella. Jamie has to leave his wife after learning that she has lied to him; he recovers with a romance where neither her nor Aurélia can speak to one another, so lying isn’t going to be a problem anymore. Mark covets Juliet, but learns a fable-like moral lesson about learning to let go. The entire film would drown in these sorts of simple fairy tales were it not for Sarah and Karl, and of course for Harry and Karen.
Maybe the Harry and Karen storyline is at an unfair advantage, since it stars Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson – two of the most talented actors in the entire century-plus history of British cinema. He’s the managing director of a London design agency, where his new personal assistant Mia (Heike Makatsch) is making obvious sexual advances. At home is his wife Karen (Thompson), who has sacrificed her career to care for their children. So tempted is Harry by Mia’s advances that he buys her an expensive necklace as a gift – a necklace Karen finds and thinks is for her. When the truth comes out, the future of their marriage is plunged into uncertainty.
This narrative, like that of Sarah and Karl’s, seems strikingly out of place. Where other threads employ a fairy tale-like atmosphere, Harry and Karen have to deal with the real consequences of betraying a long-term marriage. Critically Harry does not actually have sex with Mia. He doesn’t even kiss her. He simply does enough to shatter the trust between him and his wife. The maturity of this plot, and the depth that Rickman and Thompson give to their characters, stands in stark contrast to the rest of the film, and the whole films benefits. It’s a film all about love, but thanks to Harry and Karen it’s about losing love as much and finding it.
This storyline hits an emotional peak when Karen, confronted with Harry’s deceit in front of their children, puts on a brave face, heads quietly upstairs, and cries to the Joni Mitchell CD that Harry has fobbed off as her present. She then composes herself, walks back downstairs, and acts to her children as if everything is fine. ‘Emma’s scene with the Joni Mitchell song is very extraordinary,” said Curtis, ‘because I didn’t do it. I just wrote that she goes upstairs, puts on the record, and lets the emotion show. Everything in that scene is just Emma.’[xii]
Olivia Olson, who played Sam’s 10 year-old object of affection Joanna, watched Thompson perform the scene in the studio. ‘I remember me and this girl Lulu were sitting right by their feet as they were filming that,’ said Olson, ‘and I watching her crying on cue over and over and over again. The director was like, “Oh, you girls can’t sit here,” and she was like, “No, no, it’s fine. I like it.” I asked her, “How do you do that? How can you just cry on command?” ‘Cause they kept having to stop because there were airplanes going overhead. She was just snapping right in and out of it, going back from crying to happy. I was like, “Do you think of something sad? I would think my dog died or something.” She goes, “No, I put myself in the situation of my character. If my husband really did get a necklace for another woman, I just believe that.”’[xiii]
In one interview Thompson admitted her own experience of having a partner be unfaithful informed her performance enormously. ‘I’ve had so much bloody practice at crying in a bedroom,’ she said, ‘then having to go out and be cheerful, gathering up the pieces of my heart and putting them in a drawer.’[xiv]
So this is, in the end, far from a faultless film. It still has an undeniable power to move an audience, touching on common themes and giving many viewers – that dreaded ‘mass audience’ – exactly what they’re after. It’s a confection: timed for Christmas to tug on our heartstrings, populated with characters we like played by actors we admire, and seasoned with just enough depth and sadness around the edges to avoid being too saccharine. I have a lot of problems with it, but I am not going to pretend it’s not one of the first films I pull off the shelf to watch every Christmas season. Even films with major faults can still be broadly enjoyable.
‘Love Actually is beloved by people,’ said Bill Nighy, ‘and wherever I go, that’s the thing that people talk about. In the street, people talk to you about all kinds of things, but by far, the most number of people talk to me about Love Actually.’[xv]
‘It’s very easy to watch,’ said Thomas Brodie-Sangster, ‘and it’s a love story, all set around Christmas. It just makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that at all and people love that.’[xvi]
[i] Jessica Grose, “Why, 10 years later, Love Actually is still one of the greatest holiday films”, Elle, 6 November 2013.
[ii] Quoted in Love Actually production notes, Universal Pictures, 2003.
[iii] Universal Pictures, 2003.
[iv] Kate Abbott, “How we made Love Actually”, The Guardian, 17 December 2013.
[v] Abbott, 2013.
[vi] Marlow Stern, “Love Actually’s 10th anniversary: the cast and crew reminisce about the Christmas classic”, The Daily Beast, 7 November 2013.
[vii] Dave Karger, “The Love Connection”, Entertainment Weekly, 7 November 2003.
[viii] Stern, 2013.
[ix] Shirley Li, “Love Actually at 10: Laura Linney, Rodrigo Santoro on having the one story without a ‘happy’ ending”, Entertainment Weekly, 15 November 2013.
[x] Bryan McIver, “Young star Thomas Sangster on moving from Love, Actually to the Beatles”, Daily Record, 31 May 2010.
[xi] Bruce Kirkland, “Love Actually a curious cultural artefact”, Toronto Sun, 2 November 2003.
[xii] Grose, 2013.
[xiii] Mandi Bierley, “All Love Actually scene-stealer Olivia Olson wants for graduation is a record deal”, Entertainment Weekly, 17 December 2009.
[xiv] Sam Marsden, “Emma Thompson: I have made my peace over Kenneth Branagh’s affair”, The Telegraph, 11 November 2013.
[xv] Christina Radish, “Bill Nighy talks Arthur Christmas, Jack the Giant Killer, Wrath of the Titans, Total Recall, Shaun of the Dead, more”, Collider, 22 November 2011.
[xvi] Helen Sloan, “Thomas Brodie-Sangster talks Jojen Reed”, Access Hollywood, 1 May 2013.