New York Times reviewer A O Scott described Love Actually as 'an indigestible Christmas pudding' and finished by saying:
The loose ends are neatly tied up, as they are when you seal a bag of garbage.
The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw in his two star review said of the writer/director:
Maybe he just types alt-ROMCOM and the entire movie comes chuntering out of the printer, while Curtis slopes off to watch the rugby on television.
These two reviews from 2003 when the film was released are fairly representative of some of the critics, whose response to the film ranged from condescending to hostile. The filmgoers in the US and the UK weren't to be put off, however, and they turned up in their droves to make it a box office success. Since then it has grown in popularity as it has become as much a part of Christmas as the Queen's Speech, turkey or presents under the tree. It is so much part of the British landscape that Tony Blair referred to it when talking about a meeting with the US President. What is its secret?
Richard Curtis, Actually
The writer and director, Richard Curtis, is arguably the most important figure in British comedy of the 1980s and beyond. His successes read like a roll call of the best remembered film and TV comedies of all time. His first writing credit was the ground-breaking satirical programme Not The Nine O'Clock News (1979-82) where he first worked with Rowan Atkinson. He co-wrote all four series of Blackadder (1983-9) firstly with Atkinson himself and then Ben Elton. Curtis and Atkinson's comic creation Mr Bean is one of the most familiar British comedies worldwide and led to two films and an animated series, all of which Curtis helped to write. The massive hit, The Vicar of Dibley (1994-2007) was another programme to feature Curtis' combination of emotion, humour and memorable characters. His first film was The Tall Guy (1989) but his big breakthrough came in 1994 with Four Weddings and a Funeral which was a huge hit. He then cornered the market in romantic comedies as he followed up this success with Notting Hill (1999), Bridget Jones' Diary (2001) and its sequels1, additionally About Time (2013) and Yesterday (2019). Perhaps his most lasting legacy is as one of the driving forces behind the Comic Relief charity. It has raised over £1bn for charities in the UK and Africa and continues to raise huge amounts every two years with Red Nose Day. It is impossible to imagine British comedy without Richard Curtis. It would be like imagining pop music without The Beatles!
The Plot, Actually
The film starts five weeks before Christmas and goes up to Christmas Eve as it follows the romantic stories of a group of interconnected characters. These stories range from a schoolboy crush to platonic love. These various infatuations and relationships are picked up throughout the film as they all move towards their resolutions, some happy, some not, on Christmas Eve itself. Although some of the relationships are definitely secondary, all of them are given time to breathe in what is a very crowded screenplay. In a sense the film acts like an advent calendar where the audience is allowed to open each window and look at the small picture before the large picture in the middle is revealed.
David, the new Prime Minister, becomes infatuated with Natalie, one of his new staff in Downing Street. He shies away from this relationship at first but the pair become closer until the US President decides to make a move on Natalie. This causes David to ask for her to be transferred to another department, but will he end up regretting that decision?
Karen, David's sister, is in a comfortable marriage with Harry. However, Harry's secretary Mia is starting to make it clear that an affair with her boss is very much on her mind. He ends up buying her an expensive necklace and dancing with her at the staff Christmas party. How far will this infatuation go, and what will Karen do if she finds out?
Daniel, Karen's friend, is a widower bringing up his 11-year-old stepson, Sam. Sam has fallen in love with Joanna, an American girl in his class who appears not to notice him. She will be singing in the end of term concert so Sam resolves to learn to play the drums so he can take part in the concert and get her to notice him. Will it work or is she destined to remain unattainable?
Mark, a friend of Mia's, is the best friend and best man for Peter but he is curiously cold to Juliet, Peter's new bride. Is there more to this coldness than meets the eye and is there a shock on the cards for Juliet?
Jamie, a writer, retreats to a French cottage to write his new novel and nurse a broken heart after he finds out that his wife has cheated on him with his own brother. He develops feelings for his Portuguese cleaner, Aurelia, which she would like to reciprocate. Unfortunately, neither of them can speak a word of each other's languages. Is this a relationship that can overcome the language barrier, and even if it does will that translate into love?
Billy Mack is a washed up rock star who is desperately trying to resurrect his career with a shameless cash-in record, 'Christmas is all Around'. As he does the media rounds of radio and TV shows, it is clear that he takes the record less than seriously, much to the despair of his manager Joe. Could he actually have a big hit, and if so, will his behaviour improve before he sabotages his chances?
Colin, who delivers sandwiches for a living, decides, after being brushed off by all the women he tries to chat up, that if he is ever going to be lucky in love he needs to go to the US. His friend Tony, who works in films, tells him he is mad but Colin won't be put off. He heads over to Wisconsin, but will he get lucky and will he even find a place to stay on his first night?
John and Judy are film stand-ins who mimic the actions of the stars in order for the lighting and cameras to be set up properly. In the film they are involved in helping Tony to set up nude scenes. They spend the next few weeks getting to know each other, and find out that they really enjoy each other's company but will the attraction they have developed last beyond the end of the film they are working on?
Sarah and Karl work in Harry's office and have fancied each other since she started working there. There is one problem, in the shape of Sarah's brother who is in a secure hospital and rings up multiple times a day with imagined issues. Sarah is his only family and feels that she must put him first, even if it stops her from living a full life. When Karl finally decides to act on their attraction, will Sarah be able to grasp the opportunity or will life continue to pass her by?
Rufus, who works in a jewellery store, has a rather long winded approach to present wrapping which almost has disastrous consequences for Harry. Later on, though, could his over-deliberation actually help play Cupid to one of the other characters?
The Cast, Actually
- Hugh Grant plays David
- Martine McCutcheon plays Natalie
- Alan Rickman plays Harry
- Emma Thompson plays Karen
- Heike Makatsch plays Mia
- Liam Neeson plays Daniel
- Thomas Sangster plays Sam
- Olivia Olson plays Joanna
- Andrew Lincoln plays Mark
- Chiwetel Ejifor plays Peter
- Keira Knightley plays Juliet
- Colin Firth plays Jamie
- Lucia Moniz plays Aurelia
- Bill Nighy plays Billy Mack
- Gregor Fisher plays Joe
- Kris Marshall plays Colin
- Abdul Salis plays Tony
- Martin Freeman plays John
- Joanna Page plays Judy
- Laura Linney plays Sarah
- Rodrigo Santoro plays Karl
- Rowan Atkinson plays Rufus
The Reaction, Actually
When the film was released in November 2003, it became an instant box office success, but some critics, as we saw earlier, were not impressed by the portmanteau nature of the film. There was a feeling that it didn't give the individual stories time to breathe and that it was a kind of 'greatest hits' movie that replayed tropes from previous films. Some even found it cynical about the various forms of love that the characters found themselves in. In America, two elements of the film went down particularly badly. The initial monologue spoken by Hugh Grant referenced 9/11 which many thought was in poor taste. Also, the nude scenes between Martin Freeman and Joanna Page were considered to be gratuitous by many of the American public in particular. Others felt that it was a perfect Christmas treat, praising its wit and the performances of its ensemble cast. These critics seemed to chime with a worldwide audience who took it to their hearts and ended up giving it a very healthy Box Office return of nearly $250m.
The Music, Actually
The music does a very good job of setting the tone for the film and at times plays a central role in certain scenes. When the Prime Minister, flushed with success after his press conference, hears 'Jump' being dedicated to him by a radio DJ, he goes into a dance routine through 10 Downing Street. Hugh Grant didn't want to do the dance scene because he thought it didn't make sense. He wanted to know why the music could be heard throughout the building and why it suddenly stops. Richard Curtis just explained it away as the magic of the film world.
Billy Mack's song, 'Christmas is all Around', is played in brief snatches throughout the film and becomes very important in the final scenes in the airport, in a roundabout way. It is a reworking of the Troggs song 'Love is all Around' which was of course recorded by Wet Wet Wet for the soundtrack of Richard Curtis' first big success Four Weddings and a Funeral. The idea that we seem to lose all semblance of taste at Christmas when buying records is a running joke that is expertly handled by Nighy's dissolute rocker. He clearly hates the fact that he has to promote the record and he constantly makes disparaging remarks. Probably the pick of them, and one of the few not to contain the incredibly ingenious swearing that the character is famous for, is an exchange Billy has with a Radio Watford DJ2.
Billy: And particularly enjoy the incredible crassness of the moment when we try to squeeze an extra syllable into the fourth line.
DJ: I think you're referring to 'If you really love Christmas...'
Billy: 'Come on and let it snow'...? Ouch!
Mariah Carey's massive worldwide hit All I Want for Christmas is You is chosen as the big set piece for the school concert where Joanna (Olivia Olson, who was just 10 years old at the time) is the singer and Sam is playing the drums. When people first heard Olson's vocals there was a suspicion that there had been a bit of post-production work on the vocals. As Richard Curtis explained on the DVD extras, there had been, but not for the reason you might think. The occasional snatches of breath to indicate a slightly less polished vocal were actually added after the original performance because Olson sounded just too good!
The airport scene at the end takes place to the soundtrack of 'God Only Knows' by The Beach Boys. Although it isn't a Christmas song it just fits in perfectly with the mixture of elation and wistfulness caused by the various reunions before it fades out into a montage of meetings at Heathrow.
The soundtrack album reached Number 1 in the UK and Top 40 in the US, but there were a couple of differences in terms of the songs used. In the UK version the background music for the office party was 'Too Lost in You' by UK group, The Sugababes. The US film and soundtrack replaced that with 'The Trouble with Love is' by US singer Kelly Clarkson. The famous Hugh Grant dance scene featured 'Jump' by Girls Aloud in the UK but in the US it was the original Pointer Sisters version that was used.
The Sequel, Actually
In 2017, 14 years after the original film, Richard Curtis revisited some of the characters for a charity special, Red Nose Day Actually. The start references the famous card scene with Mark and Juliet. It then moves on to David and Natalie, Billy Mack, Rufus, Jamie and Aurelia, and Sam, Joanna and Daniel. There are in jokes and various references to the film, but it never really convinces. The resolution of Sam and Joanna's story raises a smile but for fans of TV cartoon Phineas and Ferb3 (2008-2015) the fact that they're still together is not a surprise! The Billy Mack section contains a joke in fairly poor taste, even by his standards, about the death of his manager which seems both unnecessary and completely out of place. The Karen and Harry story is left unresolved due to the tragic death of Alan Rickman although Emma Thompson did tell an interviewer that the marriage, whilst intact, was rather unhappy afterwards.
A Christmas Classic, Actually
Some Christmas films do well when they first come out and then fade away, others are slow burners, whilst the majority are appalling films that are justifiably forgotten. Love Actually is one of those rare films that start out being really popular in the cinema and just build on that year after year until few people can imagine the festive season without them, whether they like them or not! If you were to compare it to a Christmas record it would be the equivalent of 'Merry Christmas, Everybody', 'Fairytale of New York' or 'All I Want for Christmas is You'. So why has it done so well?
As with many other films, the DVD and Blu-Ray releases have been very successful and sell in good numbers every Christmas as new fans discover it. The extras are very good at explaining the music choices and the alternate and deleted scenes are definitely of interest to the devoted fans. When it appears on television there is often a flurry of tweets from viewers who see the film as the official start to their Christmas. There is still the chance to see the film in all its glory on the big screen every Christmas and there is even a version in concert venues with an orchestra playing the music.
The film itself has nine stories which means that if you are underwhelmed by one or two of them, you don't have to wait long before you get back to your favourites. There is so much to fit in that the stories never outstay their welcome. Also, the nine stories are connected by the relationships between the major characters. It is only Billy Mack who is not connected to anyone else by family, friendship or work. In a sense, it's a version of Clarence's quote from It's a Wonderful Life,
Strange isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole doesn't he?
Also, the performances are uniformly excellent. Bill Nighy, in the role that really launched him into public consciousness, is the undoubted standout as he takes the opportunity to throw good taste out of the window and play Billy Mack to the hilt. Hugh Grant fits the role of Prime Minister so well that's it a temptation to imagine a world where he is working alongside Jed Bartlet! Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson are the beating heart of the story, portraying a troubled relationship with a seriousness that quite possibly belongs in another film. Their refusal to play the situation for laughs is vital to stop the whole film from becoming too sickly and it gives us one of the most heart wrenching moments in any Christmas film as Karen listens to 'Both Sides Now' in the bedroom. The story about Sam and Joanna is beautifully pitched and played by two very talented young actors. First love is a cherished memory for nearly all people, but it can be a mixture of happiness, sadness and confusion especially when it happens early in your life. Their puppy love charms the audience anew every Christmas because it is a story of that moment when you realise how much of an impact one person can have on you at the time and perhaps for the rest of your life.
Finally, the film is free of the cynicisms of the Scrooge-like characters that are usually put in to a story to balance out the goodness. Instead, Curtis ensures that the less positive aspects of that time of year are overcome by a combination of luck and determination, together with the magic of Christmas of course! Whatever the reason, it is a film that continues to be a Christmas staple. It is hardly ever out of the Top 5 Christmas films when lists are produced based on public votes. Indeed, in 2016, Radio Times readers voted it their favourite Christmas film ever.
If you are watching it for the first time or the 20th time, as the Prime Minister says:
If you look for it, I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find that love actually is all around.