I actually agree with much of what my friend and colleague Chris Orr writes in his dismantlement of Love Actually over at The Atlantic. The movie is “emphatically, almost shockingly, anti-romantic.” It’s absolutely true that the movie’s issues include “the frequent references to how much women weigh, the recurring motif of men wooing their much-younger subordinates, the movie’s peculiar conviction that weddings and funerals ought to be livened up by (respectively) the Beatles and the Bay City Rollers, and so on.” The invocation of September 11 in the opening is sickening. Colin Frissell (Kris Marshall) is the fantasy of every man who’s ever complained about sexual poverty on the internet.
But so help me, I like Love Actually and have revisited it fondly on many occasions. Unlike the people at whom Orr is taking aim at, however, I like Love Actually not because I think it’s a compelling celebration of love, or because it’s a good holiday movie, but because of how sad the film often is.
One of the greatest present curses of romantic comedies is their inabilities to craft compelling psychological explanations for their characters’ behavior and singleness. If a woman has a career in a romantic comedy, it’s rendered her incapable of focusing on anything except her work, and opening up enough to allow for the possibility of love. The necessary cure? A man whose primary characteristic is persistence and patience. If a man has disgusting attitudes about women, it’s inevitably cover for prior romantic disappointment, and both his heart and his misogyny will be remedied by the appropriate dose of screwball banter and a good lay.
Love Actually’s structure can be a weakness, in that we don’t have much time to watch the development of the relationships between any of the characters, which gives the impression that none of these exemplars of true love appear to know each other particularly well. But the movie manages to move rather quickly and deftly through the roots of each character’s discontent and sadness. And it’s often comfortable with compromise and disappointment rather than uplifting resolutions.
There’s Karen (Emma Thompson), a housewife who spends most of her time taking care of other people, including her daughter, who’s been cast as a lobster in a Nativity play, and her friend Daniel (Liam Neeson), who has recently been widowed. Her brother (Hugh Grant) has recently been elected prime minister, and has a tendency to brush off Karen when she calls. “The problem with being the prime minister’s sister is that it does put your life into rather harsh perspective,” Karen tells her husband Harry (Alan Rickman) after one of her abortive chats with her brother. “What did my brother do today? He stood up and fought for his country. What did I do today? I made a Papier-mâché lobster head.” One of the saddest moments of the movie happens when Karen runs into her brother at the pageant in question and believes he’s made a special effort for her, when in reality, he’s just chasing a crush on Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), one of his employees.
In obvious and understandable ways and entirely mundane ways, Karen’s lost track of herself, and Harry’s lost track of her, too. He follows her obvious cues, remembering that Karen said that Joni Mitchell “taught your cold, English wife how to feel,” and putting a CD in her stocking. But he’s not doing anything to indicate to his wife that he thinks she’s beautiful or sexy, even though it’s fairly clear that Karen is feeling less than confident and attractive — “Pavarotti dresses very well,” Harry tells Karen when she jokes about which clothes she can fit into. Harry’s simply accepted Karen’s version of herself in that area of her life, too. It doesn’t even occur to him that Karen might be thrilled by the beautiful gold necklace he buys for his assistant Mia (Heike Makatsch), with whom Harry is engaged in an unwise flirtation. It’s marriage as stenography. But Karen’s at fault, too. “My expectations are not that high after 13 years of marriage to Mr. ‘Oh, but you always love scarves!’” she tells Harry, rather than being honest with him about what she wants from their marriage.
Orr complains that after Karen discovers Harry’s emotional entanglement and confronts him about it, “We see Rickman and Thompson only once more, exchanging bland endearments at the closing scene at Heathrow…What we do know is what the movie doesn’t show, which is any scenes of Rickman or Thompson trying to keep the marriage alive. Because that would almost certainly entail some work: They’d have to talk to each other, and sort through their feelings, and assess whether they can still make one another happy — all that stuff that’s hard to fit on cue cards or memorize in Portuguese.” But that isn’t all we really see in that exchange. We actually get Karen in the kind of splashy earrings she wore to the Christmas party, with sharper styling to her hair and brighter color in her clothing. She’s experimenting with her identity. And Harry’s tentative precisely because, after half-listening to his wife, he’s realized that as Karen tries to figure out who she is and what she likes, there may not be a place for him.
A more extreme parable is that of Sarah (Laura Linney), an American whose only family in the U.K. is her severely mentally ill brother. He lives in what appears to be a not particularly cushy institution, and Sarah feels obligated to take his frequent phone calls, some of which can be defused with a simple promise to reach out to the Pope about exorcisms, and some of which require Sarah to talk her brother down from threats of suicide or self-harm.
“He’s in a state facility! His phone calls to her can’t be that great an inconvenience,” Orr writes. But I’m not sure that does a credit to Linney’s acting, to the agony in Sarah’s voice when, taking one of those calls in the middle of a tryst with her co-worker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro), she begs him: “Please don’t, little darling. Between the two of us, we’ll find the answer and it won’t hurt anymore.” The point of Sarah’s story isn’t that having a mentally ill relative condemns a woman “to an early spinsterhood,” as Orr puts it. Rather, the problem is Sarah’s feeling of obligation to her brother (and the movie takes care to note how accommodating Harry, her boss, is of the calls), separate from her actual day-to-day responsibilities for his care. She’s displaced all of her emotional energy and ambitions for herself onto her brother. Sarah isn’t neglected or overlooked. She’s a tragic figure, and one of her own making.
Then, there’s Mark (Andrew Lincoln), who’s become oddly and awkwardly fixated on Julie (Keira Knightley), who in the film’s opening sequence, is marrying Mark’s best friend, Peter (a sadly underused Chiwetel Ejiofor). His obsession with her is obvious to those around him. Sarah actually asks at the wedding reception if Mark is in love with Peter, wondering if he, like her, could use a chance to let all of his feelings out. And it leads him to behave badly: Peter has to ask Mark to be polite to Juliet after they return from their honeymoon. When Juliet discovers that Mark’s shot a video of her wedding that’s to Peter composed of loving, almost vouyeristic close-ups of Juliet, and ignores Peter entirely, she’s baffled and embarrassed. “But, you never talk to me,” she protests. “You always talk to Peter. You don’t like me.” Mark’s response is to run out of his own house rather than to talk to her.
Ultimately, Mark decides to make a grand gesture to Juliet that’s set up in such a way that he knows what he’s doing is embarrassing and wrong. Posing as a carol singer and telling Juliet not to let Peter know he’s there, Mark uses a series of placards to confess his love for her. The scene would be much more interesting if Juliet hadn’t given Mark a consoling kiss at the end of it. But it ends in a way that’s refreshingly different from the standard romantic comedy climax, be it a profession of affection in a hot air balloon, or Harrison Ford cooking a frittata on a morning television show. When Mark tells Juliet he loves her, she goes back to her husband, because wanting someone doesn’t magically compel them to throw over their lives in order to be with you. The gesture is fundamentally about Mark, just as his entire infatuation has been. When he walks off down the street and quietly tells himself, “Enough. Enough now,” it’s an appropriately deflating and honest moment, and one that more romantic comedies with pretensions to insight would be wise to study closely.
None of this, of course, makes Colin Firth’s clumsy Portuguese proposal to Lúcia Moniz, playing his former housekeeper, with its broad oddly racist view of working-class immigrant families, or Liam Neeson’s chance encounter with Claudia Schiffer any more genuinely revealing about life. It doesn’t make Colin’s sexual adventures in America, where he encounters a group of super-hot Wisconsinites who can’t afford pajamas and are desperate to sleep with him, any less a repulsive MRA fantasy. And it doesn’t explain Love Actually’s vision of a porous airport security system. But if love actually is all around us, Love Actually can be painfully clear-eyed about how difficult it is not to have access to that bounty of affection, and to what are supposed to be happy endings.