The Ultimate Christmas Golden Oldie?

Love Actually is a controversial Christmas classic, loved by some and hated by others, but it still manages to conquer the heart of most viewers with the right mix of comedy, cringe, romance and drama that put you in the right mood for the holidays.

By Silvia Vacchelli

Picture: Via Pixabay, CC0

It’s almost Christmas, which means that we will find dozens of poorly made romantic comedies on TV in which the main character is a workaholic single woman who rediscovers the real meaning of love when she goes back to her small hometown, or Home Alone for the umpteenth time. Among all the new and old holiday films there is one that I traditionally watch every December, which is my ultimate Christmas film: Love Actually by Richard Curtis. However, this Christmas rom-com has become one of the most criticized with people arguing that it should be cancelled because of its sexist portrayal of women and controversial fat-shaming scenes. If I can agree that the film did not age so gracefully, I believe that it does also not deserve all this hatred and that it can still be considered as one of the best films to watch during the festivities.

Parallel Narration

Love Actually

UK 2003
135 minutes
Director: Richard Curtis
Starring: Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley, Martine McCutcheon, Bill Nighy, Rowan Atkinson, and others

For the very few who do not know the film yet, it tells the story of different characters of various ages and nationalities (mainly British) who have to learn their lessons about love during the holiday season. The whole concept about the film is that »love is actually all around«, and that is not only romantic love, but also love between old friends, between a son and a stepfather, work colleagues and siblings. This idea might be corny, but it perfectly fits the spirit of Christmas. One of the strong points of the film is that it manages to create a parallel narration between the story of the different characters without feeling forced, as it happened in other similar rom coms, such as Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve. In Love Actually, every character is subtly related to another, being friends, neighbours, family or simply co-workers.

The film has a very pleasant circular structure, so that both the opening and the ending scenes are set in London at Heathrow Airport since, as is suggested, love can be best perceived at the arrivals of an airport, where people are eagerly waiting to be reunited with their beloved. In times of Covid, this message seems more current than ever and it is not surprising that Heathrow Airport decided to recreate this famous scene by showing actual people who had been separated by the pandemic cautiously meeting again to celebrate Christmas together.

Britain at its Finest

The cast chosen for this movie represents Britain’s actor ensemble at its finest: we see very young actors who at the time were not yet well-known, but who are now part of the hall of fame, such as Keira Knightley, Thomas Sangster, Martin Freeman and Andrew Lincoln; as much as famous British actors like the memorable Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, and Liam Neeson. Not to mention the cameo scenes of the ever-present interpreter of Mr Bean, Rowan Atkinson. This film quintessentially represents the British spirit, the apparent calm and moderation that hides a proud soul, which is beautifully expressed in the emblematic speech that »Prime Minister« Hugh Grant gives after a meeting with the President of the USA:

We may be a small country, but we’re a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham’s right foot […] and a friend who bullies us is no longer a friend. And since bullies only respond to strength, from now onward I will be prepared to be much stronger.

Love Actually is not a recent film, it goes back to 2003, and we can definitely notice it by many details, like the almost ancient flip phones, the overly plucked eyebrows and the questionable fashion sense. However, after almost twenty years it is still a cult film so that every Christmas Eve without fail it is shown on TV in the UK and elsewhere. There are many Christmas classics to get you in the festive mode, from The Holiday to The Grinch, but I feel that Love Actually has an edge over all the others; it is set during the holiday season, but its message can be applied to any time of the year, and it portrays a wider variety of the human spectrum and relationships than all the other classics. It does not show only the positive and cheerful side of love but offers us also painfully familiar and relatable moments: such as the heart-breaking scene in which Emma Thompson’s character, Karen, realises that her husband is cheating on her, but she has to hide her pain in front of her children; or Sarah’s painful decision to prioritize her mentally ill brother over her love life.

Cringe and Sexism Alert

This film is way far from being perfect and since I have rewatched it multiple times I have noticed both the positive and the negative side. Its main problems are the cringy and sexist scenes that are mostly connected to two characters: the wannabe playboy Colin and the old rock’n’roll legend Billy Mack. The latter is a politically incorrect and foul-mouthed man who does not care at all about what other people feel or think of him, but the whole point of his character is how the audience is attracted by his excesses and lack of any filter.

Colin’s story, on the other hand, is simply absurd, it has no hidden meaning and it is honestly not worth being saved: it represents British women as frigid just because they reject Colin’s creepy sexual advances and American girls as lustful goddesses, who like him only because of his accent. The film has also two very problematic scenes that have always bothered me: when Liam Neeson’s character is crying because he has just lost his wife he is told that he should »get a grip« because »people hate sisses« as to say that a man should not show his emotions but man up; the other one involves the secretary of the Prime Minister who is repeatedly called fat and with thighs »big as trunks« when she is not even over-weight but simply curvier than the rest of the very skinny women around her.

The Worst Christmas Film Ever Made?

If I agree that some of the scenes and messages in Love Actually are wrong and inappropriate, I do not understand the excessive criticism of every single storyline. For example, on Twitter netizens have lashed out at Colin Firth’s character, Mark, for imposing himself on Aurelia, his housekeeper, by going to her workplace and proposing in front of everyone. Their story is definitely unrealistic and rushed since they have barely spoken to each other; however, I do not see how his gesture can be interpreted as imposing, since Aurelia is the one who kissed him goodbye and the fact that she learned English to communicate with him is proof enough that she was interested too. Likewise, one of the most condemned scenes is the mainstream »signs scene« in which Andrew Lincoln’s character, Mark, expresses his unrequited love for his best friend’s wife. Yet, what most viewers miss is that this act is not about making a romantic gesture but about confessing bottled-up feelings to then eventually move on. Mark knows that his feelings for Juliet are wrong and that ignoring them and admiring her in secret was not a solution, therefore he decides to be openly honest about them as a way to get some closure.

In previous years, there have been many articles from famous newspapers such as The Guardian, Vox or the Independent which demonize this film as the worst Christmas film ever made, criticizing it for not being realistic or deep enough. However, just like nobody expects Home Alone to be lifelike I do not understand why we should demand it from Love Actually. I feel that the whole point of Christmas films is not to be realistic or particularly deep, but to simply put you in a cheerful mood for a few hours. Having said that, I believe that we should not condone Love Actually because the film was made in a time in which fat-shaming and sexism were considered funny, but I would not also »cancel« it entirely because of some scenes. Love Actually has never been made with the intent of being a masterpiece, but with all its flaws it’s the right mix of love, cringe and laughter that will warm your heart in time for the holidays.

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