It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Love
To begin at the beginning: Love Actually is the directorial debut of acclaimed British writer Richard Curtis. He is famous for writing Four Weddings And A Funeral and Notting Hill. In my personal opinion, it's slightly more to his credit that he was involved in Blackadder and the scripting of Bridget Jones' Diary. I've heard the film being described as his version of Robert Altman's Short Cuts but, to my shame I've never seen Short Cuts so I can't really comment on that. The film consists of several vaguely interrelated stories of people falling in and out of love in the lead up to Christmas. This is both its saving grace, and its downfall.
The concept works because we only get small vignettes of each plot line. Each one deals with only two or three people and covers, if you like, the beginning, middle and ending, without having to go through any of the plot-filler that can make or break a film. However, there are slightly too many strands for the film really to gel as a whole. In many ways I wished Curtis had just picked up a few of them and expanded them.
If he'd wanted to do this he could have taken what for me is the core of the film - the Prime Minister (Hugh Grant), the Prime Minister's 'little' sister (Emma Thompson) and Daniel (Liam Neeson), who is somehow - it's never made quite clear - closely connected to the Prime Minister's sister. That way he could have excised the storyline about Kris Marshall (the eldest son from My Family) and his trip to America looking for sex, the love triangle with Keira Knightly, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Andrew Lincoln. He might also have been able to do Laura Linney justice and wrap up the strand that involves her, a gorgeous designer and her mentally ill brother. However, it would also have meant that we wouldn't have got Colin Firth's cuckolded writer going on retreat in the south of France and falling in love with his Portuguese cleaner, and, more importantly, there would have been no Bill Nighy.
At this point I'm going to quickly address the whole 'girlie-rom-com' issue. I don't particularly favour romantic comedies. When I do develop a taste for them they have - with the notable exception of Ten Things I Hate About You - to be British. Show me Meg Ryan and I will dive under the nearest bed. The only romantic comedy that I truly appreciate is Bridget Jones' Diary, I liked Four Weddings and Notting Hill rather than adored them - partly because they featured 'wonderful' American heroines who drove me up the wall. If you're a guy and you liked the three aforementioned films then you will in all probability be fine with Love Actually. If you tolerated them, but didn't really get into them, then consider this before going - how much do you like Bill Nighy? If you hated those three films, then don't go to see Love Actually, unless, of course, you happen to worship the ground on which Bill Nighy walks.
You'll be noticing a theme here. I confess that in many places I found Love Actually roaringly funny. Hugh Grant dancing was a highlight, but the vast majority of my stitches were induced by Bill Nighy. He is Billy Mack, a past-his-sell-by-date rocker who releases a cover of that infuriating song from Four Weddings And A Funeral, 'Love is all Around'. The gradual hype surrounding this truly terrible song - so bad it's almost good again - forms the backdrop to Curtis' other stories. And it just about steals the film from all of them.
In many ways it's a typical Richard Curtis film: there's love, there's heartache, there's sentimentality, there's (sort of) a disabled character, but at the same time, it feels just a little bit different. There isn't anyone as truly insane as Spike from Notting Hill for a start. Really, though, does it matter if his films have a formula as long as they're good? And fundamentally they are good, they just might not be your cup of tea, but at least you'll know to avoid them. Curtis isn't all about the fluffy bunny side of love - he doesn't ignore the pain, one of the best moments of the film is when Thompson's character confronts her husband Harry (Alan Rickman) - but he believes that there is more love in the world than hate, and though his use of examples to put this across (a reference to 9/11 in Hugh Grant's opening voice-over) may jar slightly, he is actually quite convincing.
Almost everyone who is anyone in British film is in Love Actually - or rather, as a friend of mine qualified it, anyone who is anyone and wasn't in Gosford Park - and they're all good. A lot of them don't have much to do - Chiwetel Ejiofor just has to look good in a suit on Keira Knightly's arm while Andrew Lincoln tugs at the heart-strings in their strand, whilst Laura Linney gets lost in the tangle of storylines. The main star emphasis has been on Grant and Martine McCutcheon as his tea-lady/love interest, and both are good, although you have to pray that Grant never goes into politics (Curtis can write Blair's speeches though, that would be fun). The beating heart of the film, though, consists of Emma Thompson and Liam Neeson, as a housewife and a bereaved step-father respectively, and young Thomas Sangster as Neeson's stepson. Curtis joked in an interview that Sangster is actually related to Hugh Grant and that Hugh got jealous because Thomas was a better actor. Time will tell on that one, but the boy certainly had beautiful big dark eyes, huge charm and the whole of the audience rooting for him. The spirit of Christmas took hold; we wanted the happy happy ending.