Love Actually was Curtis’s directorial debut, but he was already Britain’s romantic-comedy king thanks to his screenplays for The Tall Guy, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. He even had his own theme song: The Troggs’ Love is All Around, as covered by Wet Wet Wet, topped the UK singles chart for 15 weeks when it was used in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and it reappeared as Christmas is All Around in Love Actually. But is love really all around in Curtis’s groovy, fairy light-festooned London? I’m not so sure. The most peculiar aspect of Love Actually is how little love, actually, there is in it.
Lust Actually might have been a more appropriate title
There is some, of course. There is a woman’s devotion to her unstable brother, a widower’s sympathy for his stepson, and a drug-addled rock star’s blokey appreciation of his long-suffering manager. But there is no romantic love as anyone over the age of 12 would understand it. Nobody gets to know and appreciate somebody else’s unique qualities. Nobody discovers that they can talk to that somebody for hours on end, or realises that he or she complements them in unexpected and life-enhancing ways. Instead, most of the film’s main characters are smitten by someone they have barely spoken to. You can see why Curtis went for the title he did, but Lust Actually might have been more appropriate.
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“To me, you are perfect,” says one of the cue cards. What it doesn’t say is why Mark thinks she’s perfect. What’s so special about her? Obviously, Juliet is played by Keira Knightley, so she has an aesthetic advantage over most of us, but what else would prompt Mark’s misguided semi-public display of affection? Is she funny? Brave? Kind to animals? Does she share his interest in stamp collecting or Civil War battle re-enactments? We will never know, just as we’ll never know what David sees in Natalie or what Jamie sees in Aurelia, because they don’t have any dialogue that reveals anything about any of them.
And that’s what’s so perverse about Love Actually. Curtis is a famously verbal screenwriter, and yet he ignores the idea that attraction can depend on what people say as well as on how they look. Nor does he include any of the flirtatious banter that distinguishes It Happened One Night, Pillow Talk, The Apartment, When Harry Met Sally, and any other classic rom-com you care to name. The strand in which the English Jamie and the Portuguese Aurelia can’t speak a word of each other’s language is just the most extreme example.
It would be unfair to say that the characters in Love Actually don’t talk at all, though. They do; it’s just that their talk consists almost entirely of insults, with a particular emphasis on body-shaming. The film features two different fathers with weight-related pet names for their daughters (“Plumpy” and “Miss Dunkin’ Donuts 2003”), as well as an ageing rocker (Bill Nighy) who goes on and on about how “chubby” his manager (Gregor Fisher) is. If you didn’t know it was a romantic comedy, you could easily mistake it for a science-fiction fable set on a parallel Earth beset by a Tourette’s Syndrome pandemic. In this dystopian reality, somebody consoles their forlorn best buddy by labelling him “a lonely ugly arsehole”; a rock star swears repeatedly on children’s television and local radio without being interrupted; and the UK’s prime minister is introduced to a Downing Street staffer named Terrence, and immediately remarks, “Had an uncle called Terrence. Hated him. He was a pervert.”
The only strand in which two characters are vaguely civilised to each other is the one which has two body doubles (Martin Freeman and Joanna Page) exchanging pleasantries while they’re naked and acting out sex scenes on a film set. It’s a rare treat to see people in Love Actually who seem to get on with each other, but even they don’t discuss anything more meaningful than the traffic on the way to work, so you wouldn’t put money on their having a future together.