Love Actually (2003)

Starring: Hugh Grant, Bill Nighy, Martine McCutcheon, Laura Linney, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, Keira Knightley, Billy Bob Thornton

Directed by: Richard Curtis

Rating: 1 2 3

Hmm. What can I possibly find to say about Love Actually that hasn't been said before? Much has been made in the press about Richard Curtis's overly rosy view of England, in which a pristine, tourist-friendly London is decked with luxurious Christmas decorations, where there is no litter on the streets, no traffic jams or muggings and not a homeless person or drug addict in sight. Well, for starters, what's so terrible about that? Why should we insist on portraying Britain as a place of poverty and despair? And for seconds, homeless people and drug addicts would be as out of place in this cosy slice of middle class life as school nativity plays, gospel choirs and Hugh Grant as (the world's most unconvincing) Prime Minister would be in Trainspotting. Hey Americans, come to Britain - it's really not that bad!

Martine McCutcheon with Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson

Having said that, it's small wonder this film wasn't exactly rapturously received over the Atlantic. The US President (yes, he puts in an appearance too, played by none other than Billy Bob Thornton) is portrayed as a lechy, bullying George Hamilton lookalike whom plucky little Britain must pugnaciously stand up to. Yeah. If it happened in real life it would be great. In the film, it just seems like an excuse for Richard Curtis to write an amusing speech for Hugh Grant, who is back from playing bad guys wonderfully to playing good guys really annoyingly. How a man who can't even bring himself to sack his tea lady in person can come to run the country is beyond me. Bring back Francis Urquhart, that's all I can say.

However, the 'Hugh Grant stands up for Britain' plot is just one of many in this tale of tangled love stories. Rather than confuse us with too many complicated relationships, Curtis keeps the various plots fairly separate until the end, when it turns out all the characters are connected somehow, so at no point does the viewer become confused. However, whilst some of the plots and characters genuinely engage (Liam Neeson's, Emma Thompson's and Laura Linney's) others seem irritatingly superficial (Colin Firth's) or even pointless (the scenes between the two film stand-ins Judy and John are all based around the same gag and aren't really funny enough to merit the amount of screen time they take up).

The fabulous Bill Nighy as Billy Mack

Bill Nighy is fabulous as fading rock star Billy Mack, determined to make a comeback with the worst Christmas single since Mr Blobby, 'Christmas Is All Around' (that's 'Love Is All Around' with the word 'love' replaced by the word 'Christmas'. Clever 'ey?). With his nervous tics, deadpan voice and utterly inappropriate behaviour, he throws himself into the role heart and soul, and his performance lifts the film to a whole new, genuinely comedic level.

However, if Nighy shines then Laura Linney gleams like gold as the earnest, slightly frumpy charity worker whose love life is made impossible by a demanding mentally disabled brother who calls her constantly on her mobile. Their relationship is by far the most moving in the film, and it's just a shame that her subtly drawn and immensely sympathetic character is swept aside by the churning mass of sentiment at the end.

Liam Neeson with the impossibly cute Thomas Sangster

Emma Thompson is utterly credible (as ever) as the wife of charity boss Alan Rickman, who seems to have spent so many years playing villains he's forgotten how to be nice, and instead comes across as horribly wooden, making you wonder what on earth his wife and would-be girlfriend see in him, whilst the Lovely Keira KnightlyT and Andrew Lincoln from Teachers are woefully underused in a plot that starts out intriguingly and then kind of doesn't go anywhere. Martine McCutcheon plays Martine McCutcheon (but isn't in the slightest bit chubby), Colin Firth plays Mark Darcy; Liam Neeson is craggy and charming as the bereaved husband who must help his eight-year-old stepson (the impossibly cute Thomas Sangster) declare his love to the coolest girl in school. now where have we seen that before?

Yes, that's the other problem with this film: if you've seen Four Weddings, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones's Diary and About A Boy you almost don't need to see Love Actually: so many of the situations (awkward men who can't get their words out, beautiful women attracted to hopeless wimps, an entertaining use of expletives, the all-important school play, Rowan Atkinson in a hilarious cameo) and great chunks of the dialogue seem lifted straight from Working Title's previous portfolio. Perhaps Curtis is right to insist on giving up on rom coms: in the end, there are only so much bumbling, emotionally strait-jacketed men we can take, and in Love Actually all the men are like this, with the exception of Bill Nighy, and even he gets a bit 'um-er'ish at the end. I think I can now safely say I've now had my fill of men who can't get a complete sentence. out.

The Lovely Keira Knightley - happy now, Ian?

Although it's this inability to spit it out that forms the film's central and, I think, somewhat flawed, premise. Love Actually takes the immortal words of Alan Freeman literally, and telling someone you love them becomes a great cathartic act that will always make things better, no matter how hopeless or pointless it may seem. But as anyone who's ever made a complete fool of themself declaring undying love to someone who couldn't care less knows fine well, this simply isn't true.

Perhaps inevitably due to the vast scope of the project and the facile assumptions it makes about human nature, the film emerges as patchy and slightly dissatisfying. The comedy ranges from the sublime (Rowan Atkinson as the world's most fastidious sales assistant and every scene with Bill Nighy) to the utterly ridiculous (all the daft cameos at the end and every scene with the son from My Family). However, having said that, if you don't think about it too much, this is a lovely, heart-warming Christmas movie destined to play endlessly on BBC1 'til the end of time. There are plenty of genuinely funny moments to relish and plenty of slush to bring a tear to the eye, so suspend your disbelief and just. enjoy. After all, in the words of a much better Christmas single than Billy Mack's, it's Chriiiiistmas!

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