‘A succession of formulaic Mills & Boon gestures’: Love Actually reviewed in 2003

It has endured as a contentious festive staple for 20 years now, but the ‘romantic sentimentalism’ of Love Actually proved too much for critic Ben Walters when he reviewed the film for Sight and Sound on its first release in 2003.

13 December 2023

By Ben Walters

Bill Nighy as Billy Mack in Love Actually (2003)
Sight and Sound

“Fuck, wank, bugger, shitting arse … This is shit, isn’t it?” gripes washed-up rock singer Billy Mack under Love Actually’s opening credits. ”Yup. Solid gold shit, maestro,” his manager replies. They’re laying down an egregious Christmas cover of ‘Love Is All Around’, the song revamped for Richard Curtis’s breakthrough Four Weddings and a Funeral. With so many references to Four Weddings in the first ten minutes – the swearing, the song, a wedding, a funeral – it’s tempting to see Billy’s cynical festive exploitation as a proxy for Curtis’s own approach. Even if his intentions are as sincere as the gushing prologue and press notes maintain, the result is a shallow, saccharine distillation of the romantic sentimentalism of his previous screenplays.

But whereas The Tall Guy (1989), Notting Hill (1999) and Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) were each constructed around one blossoming relationship, Curtis has chosen for his directorial debut to juggle eight or nine plots. Instead of variations in tone, however, these strands and their characters all display the self-deprecatory affability established in Curtis’s previous work; the familiarity is compounded by Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson and Colin Firth effectively reprising earlier roles. This combination of dramatic dispersal and tonal uniformity makes for 130-odd minutes of superficial viewing. If Robert Altman’s finest work – the obvious model for such multi-stranded parallel storytelling – convinces us we are eavesdropping on lived lives, here the pat dialogue and situations make engagement a real challenge.

Such vapidity is particularly damaging in a film that asks us to take seriously its presentation of love; the prologue even invokes the text and phone messages sent from victims stranded in the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Yet without two plausible human beings to rub together, Love Actually can only present a succession of formulaic Mills & Boon gestures, unsubstantiated emblems of passion that the audience is expected to indulge.

Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman as Karen and Harry in Love Actually (2003)

When Laura Linney’s office worker Sarah takes to the dance floor with the object of her affections, for example, the music cuts, mid-track, to a slow song. The elision of the actual substance of romance that should underpin this moment illustrates the film’s approach: cut to the smooch. It’s not simply that the characters’ romantic feelings are unconvincing; often they barely know one another. The protagonists here don’t so much declare love as confess crushes. Accordingly, the conclusion – a long parade of publicly staged embraces – has the unwelcome tinge of sentimental porn; the only chance of engaging with these empty gestures is to use them as springboards for one’s own memories or fantasies.

Perhaps this sense of vicariousness accounts for Curtis’s fascination with the faces of real people being reunited with loved ones at Heathrow. This is where many of the storylines converge, and the airport setting is apt given the film’s confused transatlanticism. A certain amount has been made of the film’s supposed anti-Americanism but, while it is true that Hugh Grant’s PM trashes the special relationship because he doesn’t like the way the President treats his tea lady, British-American relations have rarely seemed warmer. Sarah is wholly sympathetic, as is the glamorous ten-year-old American girl liked by the young stepson of one of the main characters. Curtis’s scenic Thames shots, meanwhile, seem to be his picture-postcard love letters to the US audiences his films have always aspired to impress. That, in fact, is by far the most convincing courtship Love Actually has to offer.

 ► Love Actually is now screening in select UK cinemas for its 20th anniversary. 

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