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The International Writers Magazine
: Film Reviews

Love Actually
Director Richard Curtis
Starring Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy
Dan Schneider

The good thing about DVDs is that, aside from superior audiovisual quality, the extras that come with them can be engaging, more often than worthless. Usually, the best extras on a DVD are the film commentary tracks, and the making of featurettes. The worst are generally outtakes (there’s a reason most never made their films) and self-serving interviews. Sometimes all the extras blow, as when a director or star uses the commentary track as a vehicle for self-fellatio, and other times all the extras rock with insight. Such is the case with the DVD of the film Love Actually, whose extras are spare, but the few it has are good.

Hugh and Martine

The commentary with director Richard Curtis, and stars Hugh Grant and Bill Nighy, is a delightful ‘conversation’ on the various elements of the film. There’s enough background material on the actors and song choices to interest hard-edged cinephiles, while the breezy conversational tone does not allow for too much sententious puffery- something that directors such as James Cameron & Ridley Scott are notorious for. The deleted scenes are actually interesting, for they do lend some insights to the characters in this large ensemble film. Most deleted scenes are just poorly written or superfluous because they ape other, better scenes that were retained. There’s a music video of the film’s title song, The Trouble With Love Is, by American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson. It’s an abysmally trite & overproduced tune- and the worst in a film that makes some excellent soundtrack choices. Which leads me to the last and best DVD feature- director Curtis’s takes on some of his song choices. His explanations of why he chose certain songs are actually entertaining and insightful in terms of the context they were deployed in the film.

Love Actually is a delightful romantic comedy set in London whose only flaw is that it may be not quite the right length. With a large ensemble it should have been a bit longer to flesh out all the characters, or trimmed by removing the weakest one or two tales. This is director Curtis’s first film, although he penned three other romantic comedy hits in the last decade: Four Weddings And A Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Let me briefly summarize the main characters’ travails. There’s a wasted old singer named Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) and his manager Joe (Gregor Fisher). Billy’s trying to revive his career with a cheesily bad Christmas single. There’s the British Prime Minister (Hugh Grant), and a maid at 10 Downing Street that he falls in love with, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). The PM’s sister is Karen (Emma Thompson), whose husband Harry (Alan Rickman) is a magazine editor being relentlessly pursued by his horny young secretary Mia (Heike Makatsch). Karen also has a recently widowered friend named Daniel (Liam Neeson), whose stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster) is experiencing his first pangs of puppy love for a great young singer named Joanna (Olivia Olsen, a black girl, in a rare nod to the reality of human sexuality). Harry’s office also has other romantic contretemps- an American named Sarah (Laura Linney) who unrequitedly has loved a co-worker named Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) for years. Then there’s a writer named Jamie (Colin Firth), whose left his wife after catching her screwing his brother. He also falls in love with a maid, Aurelia, he’s hired to clean his house. She is played by Lucia Moniz, and does not speak a word of English, yet they communicate wordlessly - moreso than many of the other couples. Then there is Juliet (Keira Knightley- imagine a sexier, perfected version of Wynona Ryder) who is loved by two best friends Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) her husband (a black man, in a rare nod to the reality of mixed marriages) and Mark (Andrew Lincoln) - whom she thinks hates her, but really has loved her from afar, a young man named Colin (Kris Marshall), who fantasizes about American women, and heads off for the U.S., and John and Judy (Martin Freeman and Joanna Page) who are naked stand-ins for film actors.

The film, however, does a remarkable job of balancing the characters because it focuses on just those moments of true human depth, then as that moment lingers in the memory it is forcefully submerged to work in a subliminal way on the viewer’s memories of love, as the next well-written snippet of a tale plays on. Yet, not all the pieces are about sexual love, which is what makes this film a bit of a uniquity in the genre. 

The washed up singer Billy decides to spurn an invitation to a Christmas party thrown by Elton John after his single reaches No 1 and he has to pay off a bet by singing naked on television. Why? Because he wants to show his appreciation and love to his put-upon manager. They spend the evening boozing and watching TV. The story of the father Daniel and the stepson is a little rushed in places but there is a delightful scene that takes place in Heathrow airport - where Daniel scampily incites Sam to pursue his young heartthrob in a grand Romantic gesture. What is so good about this scene is that it plays off of and subverts the stale cliché of lovers dashing to meet each other in an airport by having it be two 10 year olds that do so, especially at an adult’s behest. There is also love unfulfilled, as Sarah’s and Karl’s Christmas tryst is interrupted by a call from her mentally ill brother. She chooses to tend to him rather than her would-be lover. Harry comes close to diddling Mia, but relents, yet Karen’s finding out he even thought about it leads to problems. Emma Thompson’s acting during Karen’s breakdown, then her steeled confrontation with Harry is a moment of truly touching drama in the film, highlighted by the musical selection of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, and the fact that their situation is unresolved by film’s end, show how effectively written and directed the film is, especially contrasted with Colin’s light-hearted foursome with Milwaukee superbabes.

As for the acting, Thompson and Rickman are not alone in excellence- Hugh Grant is, along with Brendan Fraser, one of the two best comic actors going. He is so good at what he has done in his film career that it’s easy to take him for granted, as just playing ‘Hugh’- but in this film there are some genuine moments of tenderness he conveys in his feelings for the maid.

That humor and drama, neatly wrapped and unresolved endings, can co-exist in this film’s world shows that Curtis is not a mere sentimentalist in the Frank Capra vein. His work has more intellectual and emotional honesty, as we also do not get all the details of each tale for Curtis realizes that his audience is smart enough to fill in the blanks. He just gives us enough to allow a viewer to draw upon their own universal experiences with love’s sundry forms - such as the Juliet-Peter-Mark triangle. There is a scene where Mark comes to Juliet’s house as she and Peter are watching TV that shows just how smartly written the film is. When Juliet answers the door Mark tells her to pretend it’s Christmas carolers. He then professes his undying love for her through cue cards. As he leaves in the snowy night Juliet rushes out and kisses him - but it is a kiss of non-sexual love, as she heads back to her husband and Mark resolves to grow up. This feint away from cliché is one of many felt through the whole film. Even the most nakedly clichéd scene of the film, where Jamie follows Aurelia to Portugal, then leads the town down to utter a public proposal to her, is leavened by both the absurdity of what many of the Portuguese think he’s going to do to her and the fact that the connection the two characters have built up between their mangled mislanguaged assumptions has been borne out between the body language of the actors.

The start and end of the film takes place at Heathrow, where a montage of people being greeted by their loved ones is lent poignancy by the opening narration of Hugh Grant stating that all the known messages left by the people who died on the 9/11 airplanes were messages of love and not hate, and the closing song of the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows. Also effective is the use of cameos in the film, most notably as dream babes such as Claudia Schiffer, Denise Richards, and Shannon Elizabeth make brief appearances in the airport as love interests for some of the diverse characters, who we see now have known each other in casual ways, each with different takes on love.

Is Love Actually a film that will challenge you the way 2001: A Space Odyssey does? No. But it is a film whose well-written and acted characters and charm will stick in your mind long after their counterparts from lesser, schmaltzier films in its genre have faded.

© Dan Schneider, October 2004

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