Directed by Richard Curtis. UK/USA. 2003.

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What more would you expect from the pen of Richard Curtis than a smaltzy, Christmas flick that concerns itself with the fun and capers of being and falling in love? Love Actually goes into sentimental overdrive to deliver its message of optimism and faith in the human spirit. But it does so in the witty, heart-warming (in the truest sense of the word) way that only Curtis seems able to do.

His favourite actors re-emerge (with the obligatory Hugh Grant somewhat bizarrely cast as ‘David’, the new British Prime Minister) as a cast who deliver the great performances you have come to expect from British A-List stars such as Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman,  Colin Firth, Liam Neeson and Bill Nighy. However, several of the inspired younger cast hold their own. Indeed, many younger actors like Martine McCutcheon - ex-EastEnder, Martin Freeman - ‘Tim’ from The Office and Andrew Lincoln -  formerly ‘Egg’ from This Life, succeed in making good their transition from TV to the Big Screen).

Love Actually. Photo by Peter Mountain. - © 2003 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.The film revolves around a multiple plot scenario with several separate story lines maintaining their independence even as the characters involved mingle with characters from the other stories. Thus, you have the romances of several would-be couples being told simultaneously. The complexity involved, for the most part, works well. The one exception, for me, is the blossoming romance between David, the Prime Minister and his housemaid - the honest, salt-of-the-earth, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). Yes, the idea of a youthful, unmarried and incredibly good-looking man being elected PM is improbable. Indeed, his schoolboy-like infatuation with the lowly housemaid that drives this leader of Great Britain to complete distraction is actually quite alarming. But it is not this that makes it hard to swallow: it is the way that Curtis seems to introduce their relationship early on in the movie and then almost ignores them until the end when Grant (supposedly spurred on by a Christmas card signed, “Your Natalie”) realises he has to woo her back. Then, suddenly, it is all Grant and McCutcheon and you are not really involved in their relationship enough to worry about whether or not he gets the girl.

And that is the danger of attempting to show so many stories within the one film: that each will in fact lose its impact and be rendered a vignette that does not coherently work as a believable plot, carrying the story forward. I think, mostly, Curtis does not do this and that is a testament to his skilful penmanship and also validation for his new role as director. There are enough links forged between the divergent plots to unify the whole film. One such device is the role of ageing pop star, Billy Mack, played wonderfully by Bill Nighy. His appearance throughout the film links the stories with great humour whilst forming a separate story line of his own. Yes, Nighy is pretty much recreating his leading role from the hit film, Still Crazy (1999) but he was so good the first time around that it can stand a fresh airing.

In the past, Curtis has centred his very English humour on a bumbling Hugh Grant who is failing in his pursuit of an American girl (thus ensuring big box office returns across the Atlantic) and, on the face of it, Love Actually appears to have forgone this somewhat irksome and sycophantic need (there is an American actress in the movie - Laura Linney from The Truman Show - but no-one we are really in awe of). And the cast is reassuringly, authentically British. Yet, one cannot help noticing that the aside references that are given are all American influenced. It is a sign of the Americanisation of the planet but it does also strike you as a nod to our American cousins just so we keep them in the loop (examples abound such as Bill Nighy’s response as to whom was his best ever shag being Brittany Spears and a chubby portuguese girl being called Miss Dunkin’ Donuts 2003).

But perhaps there is evidence of Curtis’ falling out of love with the US himself in his portrayal of the sleazy, untrustworthy President (Billy Bob Thornton) who visits Number 10. As Britain, at last, gets to see a PM stand up to a US bully, Curtis taps in to the nation’s mood in a post-Iraq war Britain with apt timing. One could also point to the easy virtue and somewhat intellectually challenged American girls an oversexed, twenty-something English lad (Kris Marshal) encounters in Milwaukee. It is possible to view this as a biting indictment of small town USA when contrasted with the wit, charm, eloquence and purity of the English girls but perhaps that would be overstating the Curtis’ disillusionment with all things American? It is enough for this viewer that there is not a London bus in sight.

All in all, Love Actually is a feel good movie of the best sort. Indeed of the sort that just is not made anywhere else anymore. As we gear up for the inevitable multiple screenings on our TVs this season of It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street and the like, we can cherish a thought that here, at least, is one modern director unabashedly serving up the holiday sentiment. Its message is clear: ‘Love is all around you’ - be it romantic love, family love or the love of a true best friend. And Curtis seems to take pleasure from reminding his audience of that fact. Some of the romances work out, some don’t; some long-term marriages look slightly battered; and some friendships have been severely challenged by the end of the movie. But for each character, somewhere in their life is love and the possibility for more is indeed everywhere. Striking a good balance (as always) between comedy and tears, Curtis sends us his very own brand of Christmas cheer and what better time is there to put cynicism aside and wallow in the author’s quintessential Englishness - that doesn’t actually exist - and think it 
might be quite nice if it did.

Angela Swift
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