Today’s Joanna Page is Richard Curtis’s Love Actually.
Curtis has dominated British comedy, whether it’s been on television or in the cinemas, for nearly three decades now. Following an early stint writing for Not the Nine O’Clock News in the 70s, he started to bestride us like a laughing, Islington-loving colossus the following decade with The Black Adder, its three sequel series and a couple of one-off spin-offs. Within a few years, he became the moving force behind Comic Relief and managed to notch up a couple of movies, including The Tall Guy, starring Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson.
In the 90s, he stormed through again, first unleashing Mr Bean on us all, before choosing to take over the world and introduce Hugh Grant to us all with Four Weddings and a Funeral. He went on to write Notting Hill and the screenplay for Bridget Jones’s Diary. He also spent 13 years laughing at country folk for the mysteriously successful The Vicar of Dibley.
Love Actually, released in 2003, was his first attempt at directing a movie. It’s kind of a composite rom com version of Crash (or a sicklier version of This Year’s Love, which also featured Jo Page) in which just about every possible facet of love is explored through the inter-connected lives of various people around the world. With an incredible cast of stars, it is occasionally touching, sometimes funny, and usually irritating. But it has Joanna Page in it – provided you don’t buy the censored DVD – so we’ll forgive it.
General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed – but I don’t see that – seems to me that love is everywhere.
Igniting laughter, wreaking havoc, breaking hearts, daring commitments, forcing choices, catapulting spirits, forging inroads, creating risks – ecstatic, exciting, unexpected, unwelcome, inconvenient, inexplicable, inelegant, unequalled.
Love actually is all around.
From the new bachelor Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) instantly falling in love with a refreshingly real member of the staff (Martine McCutcheon) moments after entering 10 Downing Street…
To a writer (Colin Firth) escaping to the south of France to nurse his re-broken heart who finds love in a lake…
From a comfortably married woman (Emma Thompson) suspecting that her husband (Alan Rickman) is slipping away…
To a new bride (Keira Knightley) mistaking the distance of her husband (Chiwetel Ejiofor)’s best friend (Andrew Lincoln) for something it’s not…
From a schoolboy (Thomas Sangster) seeking to win the attention of the most unattainable girl in school…
To a widowed stepfather (Liam Neeson) trying to connect with a son he suddenly barely knows…
From a lovelorn junior manager (Laura Linney) seizing a chance with her long-tended, unspoken office crush…
To an ageing “seen it all, remember very little of it” rock star (Bill Nighy) jonesing for an end-of-career comeback in his own uncompromising way…
Love, the equal-opportunity mischief-maker, is causing chaos for all.
These London lives and loves collide, mingle and climax on Christmas Eve – again and again and again – with romantic, hilarious and bittersweet consequences for anyone lucky (or unlucky) enough to be under love’s spell.
Is it any good?
Errr. Not so much. The cast are almost all brilliant, as you’d expect. But as a movie, it’s kind of anti-holistic in that the parts are in some ways better than the whole. Not that many of the parts are that good.
It’s tricky to know what was going through Richard Curtis’ mind when he wrote this. Although it’s called Love Actually, few of the various strands of the film bear much resemblance to actuality. Like Sleepless in Seattle, they’re mostly about being in love in movies. So you can’t come out of this saying “Yes, that’s what love’s like! That’s so true!”
Neither is it clear what he’s trying to say, other than “older men find younger women attractive. And vice versa”. Although we have that voiceover at the beginning saying that the world isn’t all just greed and hate and that love is all around us, most of the time, love appears to be causing people misery. Sometimes it’s the love between friends, sometimes it’s unrequited love, sometimes it’s inconvenient love that stops true love from happening.
Even if you were to go for the idea that each story has mini-messages, so few of the strands have resolutions or enough depth that they could bear the strain of a message.
By the end of the film, you’re not sure whether Curtis was trying to be heart-warming but missed or whether he was secretly trying to tell us that love sucks most of the time. At most, I guess, you could argue that he’s trying to say that love changes us and how we behave – universally, we become idiots, apparently.
It’s probably better to say that we have a series of vignettes and comedic moments, and if you’re lucky, some of them will chime with you and amuse you, but most of them probably won’t.
Thumbs up and thumbs down
Hugh Grant/Martine McCutcheon – love transcends class and position. Probably the best of Curtis’s roles for Grant, who manages to avoid the usual fop part, in favour of something with a bit more strength. This strand also features a surprisingly restrained performance by Billy Bob Thornton as the president of the United States and a rather unpleasant sneer at America that’s about as well thought out as Curtis’s other recent example of Islington-derived political thought, The Girl in the Cafe.
Colin Firth/some Portuguese woman – love transcends language: Firth falls in love with his maid, who only speaks Portuguese. Yet somehow they manage to express themselves. While Grant/McCutcheon was moderately amusing, Firth’s strand starts off miserable – he finds his wife cheating on him with his brother – and then spends the rest of the time in unreality. He’s a writer but still doesn’t use a computer. Or carbon paper. And although he’s never spoken a comprehendible word to his maid – or vice versa – he proposes marriage in front of her entire town, purely on the strength of having seen her dive into a lake in her underwear.
Emma Thompson/Alan Rickman – married men will stray: what’s this one all about? Seriously, Rickman’s tempted to cheat with his secretary. Emma finds out that he’s tempted, but not done anything. They carry on as usual but she’s sad. The end. Love sucks when someone else falls out of love with you? Thompson’s great though and it is a moving segment of the film thanks to her.
Keira Knightley/Chiwetel Ejiofor/Andrew Lincoln – unrequited love sucks: Again, what? Here Andrew Lincoln loves Keira but she’s just married Chiwetel. So he tries to stay away, but when he can’t, he tries to woo her. And she sort of responds. Cheating is good? Chiwetel’s wasted, Keira does as well as she can, and Andrew’s on good form. But what’s the point? Another of the sadder ones.
Thomas Sangster – young love is painful too: This is possibly the most offensive of the strands. Little Tommy’s mum’s just died. But, no, he’s not sad like Liam Neeson about something trivial like that. He’s in love with a girl at his school. So he learns to play the drums. When it turns out she’s going back to America, he runs his way through airport security to say goodbye. Frankly, the little git should have been shot, as should Liam Neeson for encouraging him. What kind of Dad, two years after 9/11, tells his kid to run through security causing everyone’s flights to be delayed, just so he can say goodbye and maybe be killed? It’s a movie love thing that should have them both sent to Guantanamo.
Liam Neeson/Claudia Schiffer – supermodel love is great, even if you’ve just been widowed: He’s just lost his wife, his son’s about to get shot, but who is this young, saucy looking blue-eyed, blonde. Why it’s Claudia Schiffer. And they fall in love. Why? Presumably, even if you’ve lost love you can find it again. But there’s no love, just lust here. Or is it another “love at first sight”? How many is that so far?
Laura Linney – mental husbands are bad for your love life: Maybe I got the wrong end of the stick on this one, but Laura fancies someone at work, but can’t work up the courage to ask him out. Eventually she does, but then it turns out she’s got a mentally ill husband (?) in hospital who needs her attention so she can’t be with Carl the hunky designer after all. Message? We have to make sacrifices for love? The mentally ill are inconvenient?
Bill Nighy – No real message other than “friends are good and Bill Nighy is funny”
Interspersed with the “big name”, longer strands there are a couple of minor strands that are actually far funnier.
Almost as a sop for those people who complained that Four Weddings, Notting Hill, etc, have created images of England that pander to American stereotypes, Curtis has one minor strand that works the other way. Kris Marshall is a young sandwich delivery guy who’s not very successful in life or love, but reckons if he went to America, he’d be a catch. Falling for the British stereotype of America, he believes every woman in every bar in the US looks like a model and that they’ll fall instantly in love with his British accent.
So he flies over to Milwaukee and in the first bar he goes to, he meets a variety of attractive young American women, who take him back to their place where he meets even more. The totty duty here is taken up by Elisa Cuthbert from 24, Shannon Elizabeth from American Pie, Denise Richards, January Jones from Mad Men, and Ivana Milicevic. Still, it’s not a very insulting stereotype, as stereotypes go, so I’m not sure how annoyed Americans might have been in comparison.
Then there’s the strand featuring Martin Freeman and…
These two play a pair of porn star stand-ins. That is, they don’t actually have sex, they just take the place of the real stars so that the scene can be lit properly for when they turn up.
While they’re doing this, they chat about mundane things, such as the traffic and lunch.
Unfortunately, because of some strange technical hitch with my screen and video capture software, I can’t take any pictures of the scenes where they’re faking sex in the nude – bizarre, hey? – so you’ll just have to have this publicity photo where, mysteriously, all their clothes have fallen on.
After a while, they’re getting on well enough that he asks her out on a Christmas date.
Then they’re going to a carol concert together. “How did you two meet?” a friend asks.
A question they have problems answering.
And before you know it, they’re engaged – finally Freeman ‘can have a shag’, he says – and at the airport together, meeting with Kris Marshall’s pal.
It’s a bit hard to know what Curtis is trying to say with this one. Simulated sex is meaningless and empty without love but easy to do, but when you do have feelings, sex becomes far more important and harder to simulate? Well, okay then Rich. I’ll take your word for it. Probably, he just wants to make us laugh with a juxtaposition of the nudity and the everyday banality of their conversations. A job is just like any other.
All the same, it’s much funnier than most of the strands, Freeman’s amusing, JP’s endearing and allowed to be Welsh, and although its ending is as sickly sweet and unrealistic as the others’ (well, the happy ones), it’s more memorable and edgier than the rest of the movie.
If you want to buy it (and ITV2 aren’t repeating it again as they usually are), try Amazon.co.uk. Incidentally, there’s a censored version of Love Actually from which the entire strand has been excised. Don’t get that one, obviously.
Here’s a trailer for the movie, in which JP appears ever so briefly.
Gulf News: “I was originally supposed to audition for another part and they said I just wasn’t right for it, but would I come back and read for Judy? When I had read the script, I had thought: ‘Who is going to play this part?’ I couldn’t do that.”
BBC Press Office: “Thank God we weren’t completely naked! I had to have so many bits of double sided sticky tape everywhere and thongs with the sides cut out so you look naked. Luckily Martin was in the same position as me so it was okay! I had so much tape on so everything was covered up but at the end of the day you have to peel it all off. I’ve never tried waxing but I can imagine that it is the same pain!”
Next week: She’s the star of a British road movie! She has some of the country’s leading rock stars as supporting cast. It’s directed by Robert Young. What could possibly have gone wrong with Bye Bye Harry?