Sunday, December 25, 2011

Love Actually Movie Review: A New Perennial Christmas Classic

Released in the United States one week after Elf, a film I think should become a holiday classic, Love Actually warmed audiences' hearts and for many has become perennial viewing at this time of year. It’s easy to see why as I found it thoroughly enjoyable in the cinema in November, 2003, and still find it emotionally fulfilling eight years later. At the time I might have written it off as high-end fluff that I fell for at a time when I was returning from the emotional high of three months backpacking Europe, a trip during which I saw London for the first time. So watching the movie, I experienced nostalgic excitement over seeing that skyline again, for recognizing Heathrow airport, for hearing those London accents. It turns out, however, that the film has a lot more to offer. It has staying power built on a witty script by Richard Curtis, who also directs with a light touch, keeping more than a dozen major characters suspended over two hours bringing everyone’s story into resolve in the final scenes and brief coda.

The stories dreamed up by Curtis are at once amusing, cute, sweet, touching, inspiring, and in one case devastating. Of course he earned his screenwriting stripes with Four Weddings and a Funeral, another British film that succeeds in telling several simultaneous stories punctuated by defining moments in the characters’ lives. Love Actually takes place in the final five weeks before Christmas as people jockey around trying to get last minute gifts and find a bit of happiness. It’s a movie that buys wholeheartedly into the season of brotherhood and love our cultures (British and American) try so hard to achieve during the holidays.

Love Actually does not have a plot that can be easily summarized. This is merely a fact of the film’s structure, not a criticism of its quality. If you were to graph the plot with different lines representing each character or group of characters you’d have at least a half dozen different threads that converge almost, but not quite, to one similar line. That’s because by the end we see how these disparate characters are connected to one another, an illustration of how all people are tied to one another and how our actions can have far-reaching effects on people we may not even know. This is especially important given the film’s Christmas-time theme, which intends to demonstrate the importance of interconnectedness at a time when most people are more attuned to being loving and nice. The basic premise, as spelled out by Hugh Grant in an opening voiceover, is that if we open our eyes, we can find that love actually is all around.

The characters are comprised of Hugh Grant as a bachelor Prime Minister who is captivated by one of his Downing Street assistants; Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman as a married couple entering that stage of marriage where things have become complacent and Rickman’s wandering eye is caught by a young and forward colleague; there’s Andrew Lincoln as the lovelorn Mark whose best friend (Chiwetel Ejiorfor) has recently married the radiant Juliet (Keira Knightley), whom he has a secret and unrequited crush on. There’s also a couple who rather hilariously meet and get to know each other while working as nude stand-ins on a film production and have to simulate sex in various positions while struggling to make small talk. Don’t forget about the sex-starved Colin (Kris Marshall) who dreams of traveling to the States where he plans to meet beautiful goddesses so turned on by his British accent that they’ll immediately jump into bed with him. This particular storyline has a hilarious resolution (spoiler hint in the photo above).

That’s not all. There’s still Jamie (Colin Firth) as a recently jilted boyfriend who spend the holiday season in a cottage on southern France where he falls for his Portuguese assistant, Aurelia (Lucía Moniz); Laura Linney plays a woman who has spent years building up the courage to tell a colleague about her feelings, but she’s too distracted by a mentally ill relative; Bill Nighy is a fading rock star out to reach glory one last time by recording a Christmas pop tune to compete with a popular boy band; and finally Liam Neeson is a widower left to care for his 11-year old stepson, who is by his own admission in love with a girl who hasn’t noticed him.

How’s that for a cast of characters? What they mostly have in common, apart from being in the same movie and finding love in different and surprising ways, is that they are all held up by problems in communication of some sort. Communication, they say, is the key to a healthy relationship. Rickman and Thompson don’t really talk and so one loses sight of the importance of the other. Jamie and Aurelia literally don’t speak the same language yet fall in love in spite of this impediment. Mark is incapable of even being cordial with Juliet what for his feelings. The nude stand-ins have difficulty making a first move despite spending most of their working day naked together. These situations provide funny circumstances that we can chuckle at as we watch, but Curtis knows full well that these are serious issues that make or break potential and actual love.

A movie like this typically doesn’t demand a lot of its cast. Mostly Knightley, Firth, Grant, et al have to show up, look pretty, act cute and the job is done. That’s not to suggest their jobs are easy, but the light subject matter keeps them having to do much heavy lifting. The notable exceptions here are Rickman and Thompson, especially the latter, who have the most serious storyline in the movie. How great is it that they got two seasoned pros to play this couple. Thompson has two moments that are among the best acting I’ve seen from her career: the first is her realization that the necklace she spied earlier was not bought for her and she has to excuse herself from her children and husband for some alone time; the second is after revealing to Rickman that she knows there’s another woman and she has to switch immediately from that to all smiles when her children come out to meet her. I believe it is this particular story that lends the film its power overall.

It’s easy to be pat and remark that Love Actually is a warm-hearted feel-good movie. It is those things, but Curtis worked hard at it. He didn’t sloppily toss together some sappy moments and a bunch of stars like some Hollywood directors and screenwriters have done with movies centered on other holidays to create a built-in box office success. Love Actually puts those other movies to shame because although it deals with serious issues in a relatively superficial manner, it at least has the good taste to deal with them honestly.

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