The Good: Excellent casting, Charming, Funny, Great theme, Interesting characters, Not entirely predictable
The Bad: What isn't unpredictable, is terribly predictable
The Basics: With its massive ensemble cast, Love Actually illustrates that love is all around by taking multiple storylines and weaving them together beautifully.
I am a bit of a fan of complex movies. If a film is done right, it can have several threads going simultaneously and I'll love it. Magnolia is a perfect example of a film that takes several different storylines and expertly weaves them together. It is with a similar appreciation - but on the love, not despair, end of the spectrum - that I watched and rewatched Love Actually. There is no film I reviewed originally that I have looked forward to going back and re-rating like Love Actually; time has certainly smoothed out the edges on this one and it is a near-perfect film in my pantheon! With Batman Returns, it is an annual Christmas tradition in my home, as far as movies go!
You might have seen previews for Love Actually and resisted it because you are not a Hugh Grant or Winona Ryder fan. For the former, Grant is not in much of the movie and where he is, he is actually interesting, charming, and genuinely funny. For the latter, Ryder is not in the movie at all; the lookalike in the previews is actually Keira Knightley, who is made up to look pretty much identical to Winona Ryder. Go figure.
Regardless, Love Actually is a surprisingly good film, especially for a romantic comedy, which is usually such an overdone, obvious genre. Instead, Love Actually begins with a simple premise; love is all around us. And it then seeks to prove it.
This is achieved through the telling of various tales of love, love lost, or near-love that loosely intersect in England in the weeks before Christmas. The stories include: David, the new Prime Minister, taking a fancy to his intern, Daniel, a widower, counseling his son on how to win the girl of his dreams, Colin going on an insane quest to the United States to find women, Sarah trying desperately to express her love to her coworker, while being plagued by a love for a mentally ill brother, and Harry and Karen's marriage coming to a crossroads when Harry finds himself more and more open to the advances of Mia. There is something for everyone here, including a reclusive writer with a broken heart finding love with the woman who is simply the nearest person to him.
These are cool stories set against a backdrop of an aging musical artist's attempt to get the number one song in the Christmas season even though he knows it is terrible. What makes it work is the writing and the characters. Whenever any one plot seems to be going on too long or going nowhere, the focus of the movie changes entirely. And when it returns to the story one might have though dull, it feels new again. The movie works out quite well in that regard, because as the film progresses, we come to wonder what is happening to other characters that we may not have seen in some time.
In short, though, the characters are interesting and it is quite cool to see how the different characters resolve their problems. David, for example, uses his feelings of love for Natalie to restore national pride to England by standing up to a bullying U.S. President (I cheered when that happened). Jamie - the writer - uses love to overcome love lost by realizing that sometimes, the most simple act of love is simply communicating with the person one loves. Daniel, the widower, experiences a profound sense of love for his son and his aid to his son allows him to overcome his own grief. And the relationship that is growing between Mia and Harry keeps the viewer guessing. Mia is the perfect example of a character that works quite extraordinarily in the movie; her character is presented as perceptive and playful, which creates a character that is quite different from the homewrecker or outright slut one might wish to brand her as.
The characters are challenging as well. There is no firm resolution between Harry and Karen when Karen realizes she is losing Harry and that makes the conflicts and ideas they share much more interesting. The Peter, Juliet, and Mark relationship is in some ways more infuriating because of the implications of the last scene where the three of them are together. And the movie works because it is not all happy. It is, in fact, agonizing to watch Sarah as she and Karl get closer and then love - her love for her brother - tears them apart. Love is complicated and Love Actually does an excellent job of not trivializing that, but actually accepting and exploring it. Love comes with different priorities for different people and Love Actually does an excellent job of illustrating that as well.
The other thing that aids the movie spectacularly is the acting. The actors are perfectly cast to represent a decent cross-section of the population, resulting in a very diverse look and feel to the movie. The actors and actresses, furthermore, are playing at some of their best.
Alan Rickman is wonderful as Harry, playing someone both cranky and open to love in a way very different from his character in, say, Galaxy Quest. Opposite Rickman is Heike Makatsch, who is a refreshing sight without being Hollywood beautiful, and a strong Emma Thompson. Thompson carries an amazing ability to go from strong and funny to crying and vulnerable with remarkable fluidity. Hugh Grant is surprisingly good as the Prime Minister and his boyishness is accented by the dignity portrayed in the body language of Martine McCutcheon, who plays Natalie.
The couple to watch, though, has to be Collin Firth as Jamie and Lucia Moniz as Aurelia. Moniz is amazing and has an incredible ability to transform from her initially homely appearance with poor posture and a demure attitude to a strong, proud woman that is quite beautiful. She is funny and charismatic, no mean feat to pull off when the character is speaking a different language throughout the movie! Firth is great opposite her, taking his usual bland British demeanor and opening up into someone who is actually quite charming as Jamie.
At the end of the day, though, it is a romantic comedy. That means there are few surprises awaiting us in how the film resolves itself, but the truth is, it works in this context. Why? Because love truly is all around us and it is something that may fill us and be quite wonderful, no matter its context.
And writer and director Richard Curtis does a smashing job of taking what is all around us and making it genuinely entertaining.
For other Christmas movies, please check out my reviews of:
Dr. Seuss's How The Grinch Stole Christmas
The Muppet Christmas Carol
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2010, 2005 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.