The Fan Carpet’s Phil Slatter Looks Back at Richard Curtis’ Star-Studded Ensemble Rom-Com LOVE ACTUALLY 15 Years On | The Fan Carpet Ltd • The Fan Carpet: The RED Carpet for FANS • The Fan Carpet: Fansites Network • The Fan Carpet: Slate • The Fan Carpet: Theatre Spotlight • The Fan Carpet: Arena • The Fan Carpet: International

The Fan Carpet’s Phil Slatter Looks Back at Richard Curtis’ Star-Studded Ensemble Rom-Com LOVE ACTUALLY 15 Years On


28 November 2018

At the start of Love Actually, ageing rockstar Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) is recording his terrible Christmas-themed cover of Wet Wet Wet’s Love is All Around. Billy, desperate for a comeback and the Christmas number one slot, knows the song is terrible and even comments to his manager Joe (Gregor Fisher) that ‘this is shit, isn’t it?’. Joe smiles and replies ‘Yep, solid gold shit!’. He too knows full well that the song has little by way of artistic merit but that it will rake in the cash and the publicity.

Some might argue that this comment is inadvertently a review of Love Actually itself. Fifteen years after its release and box office success, the ‘ultimate romantic comedy’ is ingrained in popular culture and gets more than its fair share of viewings at this time of year. It’s very popular but doesn’t exactly frequent many top ten lists. Yet how does it really stand up these days?

With Richard Curtis at the helm, it was always going to perform well commercially. Curtis had made his name with the darkly comic T.V. series Blackadder alongside satire such as Spitting Image and Not the 9 o’clock News before entering the wider mainstream consciousness with his Oscar-nominated script for the very successful Four Weddings and a Funeral. That films close cousin Notting Hill followed five years later, before his co-wrote the screenplay for Bridget Jones’s Diary, another big hit. A directorial debut was a logical step, and a romantic comedy was the logical genre. A cast of A-listers signed up for a series of inter-connecting stories set in London in the build-up to Christmas.

 

 

One of the main characters in the story is David, played by Hugh Grant, a newly instated, single Prime Minister who eventually falls for Downing Street tea lady Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). Grant was a regular in the aforementioned Curtis scripted films and was known for his posh ‘foppish’ characters. This was something he had steered slightly away from in Bridget Jones and then About a Boy where he played more-suave, less bumbling leading men. Yet his PM is a throwback to Four Weddings Charles or Notting Hill’s William. Back in 2003, such an individual as PM was a tough sell, not exactly a world away from Tony Blair but definitely not cut from the same cloth as John Major or Margaret Thatcher. However, seven years after Love Actually was released, a new Prime Minister entered number ten.

A posh Etonian of an almost identical age who even went by the same first name, there were even jokes made at the time that Hugh Grant was the new leader of the government when David Cameron took office.

 

 

Love Actually is very neutral politically speaking but it made an oddly accurate prediction of what was to come. Grant as PM then may have been a tough-sell then, but it’s more than believable now. A more minor character in the film but pivotal to David’s story is that of the unnamed US President, played by Billy Bob Thornton. Thornton as the President is not difficult to believe, but his character is another glimpse into what will come in the real world. An obnoxious personality who makes inappropriate comments on women’s appearances and thinks nothing of using his power to seemingly make sexual advances to women in a vulnerable position? Maybe this film was 13 years ahead of schedule given the current incumbent in The White House. The President of the film demonstrates inappropriate behaviour we know existed in 2003 but was sadly tolerated, in particular by individuals in power. In the extended world of the film, Natalie, whose world falls apart after her uncomfortable liaison in Downing Street, would probably have been tweeting #MeToo in 2017.

 

 

While David is running the country, an inverse love story involves his sister Karen (Emma Thompson) and the breakdown of her marriage to husband Harry (Alan Rickman). Harry’s lusting after his flirtatious secretary Mia (Heike Makatsch) sets him on a rocky road that leads to THAT pivotal scene on Christmas eve. Karen finds an expensive necklace Harry has brought for Mia thinking it is for her only to discover a Joni Mitchell CD in the package. Thompson is a fine actress but her emotional breakdown in the bedroom upon realising that the necklace was for someone else and that her marriage is falling apart is arguably her finest hour. No words, no co-stars, no cuts. It’s haunting. Yet what is key to the story is that Karen and Harry's marriage isn’t a troubled one. Curtis brilliantly depicts the dangers of temptation as Harry, a Managing Director who is married with children and seemingly has it all, shows a weakness when a young, attractive girl flutters her eyelids. There has always been some debate as to whether Harry and Mia actually do have an affair, but that is besides the point. By taking the course he does, Harry, as Karen brilliantly puts it, makes a fool of the marriage and family life that they have built. It’s smart, and oddly subtle for a Rom-Com.

When he’s not being led astray by Mia though, Harry does try to play match-maker to his employees Sarah (Laura Linney) and Karl (Roderigo Santoro), telling Sarah to make her feelings known. She does so, but as her relationship with Karl gets intimate, she answers the phone to her mentally-ill brother Michael. It transpires that she cares for Michael and this effectively puts an end to any chance of her relationship with Karl progressing any further. It’s a love story in the truest sense, Sarah’s love for her brother is the most important thing and forgoes her own happiness for him. It’s perhaps Love Actually’s best, yet most forgotten storyline.

 

 

Amidst these standout moments, there are many forgettable plotlines -Colin (Kris Marshall) going to America to meet women is little more than daft wish-fulfilment fantasy, while charismatic actors Martin Freeman and Joanna Page are somewhat wasted as a couple who meet as nude body-doubles on a film set like an early version of Channel Four’s bizarre dating show Naked Attraction.

There is also Sam (Thomas Sangster), the stepson of recently widowed Daniel (Liam Neeson) who opts to take up the drums to impress classmate Joanna (Olivia Colson). While doing something with the sole purpose of impressing a girl is something many people can relate to, Sam’s child-in-a-mans-body musings on ‘the total agony of being in love’ is about as believable as his climactic chase to the airport comes the end.

A subtler demonstration of the agony of love comes via Mark (Andrew Lincoln). His love for his best friend Peter’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) new wife Juliet (Keira Knightley) is hidden beneath an outward dislike for, and distancing from, her. This story strand is best remembered for the climax in which Mark spells out all his feelings to Juliet via a series of placards, yet the preceding scene is the sections true standout. After reviewing the wedding footage Mark has shot, Juliet realises how he feels and is somewhat confused by his cold demeanour towards her. ‘It’s a self-preservation thing’ he tells her before staggering into the street, accompanied by Dido’s ‘Here With Me’, the perfect song choice for a moment of doubt, frustration and pain. The placard finale is a bit too neat and tidy given the agony he is feeling, more serving to the audience than reality by giving the likeable, romantic fool some sense of closure.

 

 

In the years since its release, a new sub-genre of romantic comedies has been inspired by Love Actually in the guise of films that would tell a series of inter-connecting love stories. Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, New Year’s Eve and What to Expect When You’re Expecting all attempted to follow the idea of Love Actually’s central premise, yet they all opened to a poor reception and, with the exception of Valentine’s Day, poor to middling box office returns. Equally, the overly saccharine UK set film The Holiday makes Love Actually, as William Thomas of Empire magazine stated, seem positively gritty.

This is a testament to the strengths of Love Actually, for what Curtis managed to do has often been imitated but never matched. That is not to say it is a masterpiece, for its flaws stop it short of being just that. Yet to dismiss it as mere fluff is to overlook its standout moments, heart-wrenching storylines and more meaningful depictions of love amidst the gloss and picture-postcard shots of London. Solid gold? No. Shit? Definitely not.

Written by: Phil Slatter

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