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There are two kinds of people in the world. People who recognise that Love Actually is a horrible, toxic, retrograde dumpster fire of a movie… and people who are wrong.
Each of the nine plot strands in Richard Curtis’ 2003 alleged romantic comedy is terrible and depressing in its own unique way, but in fairness, some are more overtly horrible than others. So, in the spirit of Christmas, here is the definitive ranking of all nine major storylines from the absolute worst to the almost tolerable. Humbug.
9. Andrew Lincoln is an irredeemable creep
Summary: Mark (Andrew Lincoln) is in love with Juliet (Kiera Knightley). Inconveniently, she’s just gotten married to a Peter, Mark’s best friend. This makes Mark sad, so he spends their entire wedding filming Juliet exclusively in creepy stalker close-up. Later, Juliet watches this tape – while wearing an utterly disgusting hat – and is inexplicably moved rather than terrified that this basement-dwelling psychopath has clearly been beating off to her wedding video for the past week and may very well now wish to kill her and wear her skin. Later, he turns up at her door and declares his undying love via placard. Juliet giggles and gives him a kiss. Her husband is in the next room.
Why it’s horrible: This story sums up everything wrong with Love Actually in a handful of stomach-churning scenes. It’s incredibly lazily written. Neither the woman nor the black character exists as anything other than a plot device – she as the beautiful woman with no agency or personality of her own, he as the inconvenient romantic hurdle. (Side note – Kiera Knightley was seventeen when she played this role, which makes the whole thing even more skeevy than it appears on the surface). White male lead Lincoln behaves like an irredeemable creep throughout, yet for some reason the movie expects us to root for him. There’s no effort to build any kind of meaningful relationship between Mark and Juliet to justify his feelings or subsequent behaviour. He’s just a shit, actually.
Redeeming features: Absolutely none, although annoyingly the film does briefly tease a much more interesting and heartfelt version of this story when Laura Linney asks Andrew Lincoln if he’s in love with his best friend. Sadly, the movie instead chooses to yank this away in favour of a cheap gay panic gag. This will not be the only time that happens in this movie.
Romance rating: -10/10.
8. Kris Marshall’s adventures in sex trafficking
Summary: Colin (Kris Marshall) can’t get a shag to save his life. So he goes to America, where he hopes attractive American women will throw themselves at him. They do. He returns to England with a Shannon Elizabeth, and also a Denise Richards for his friend to sleep with. End of story.
Why it’s horrible: First of all the obvious. Colin is a fucking creep. To see Colin is to be repulsed by Colin. To hear Colin speak is to be repulsed by Colin. There is no effort to make Colin likeable or sympathetic in any way. He can’t get laid in England because he blithely sexually harasses or insults every woman he comes into contact with. He learns no lessons and overcomes no adversities. To describe the American girls as two dimensional would be an insult to hand drawn animation. Watching a pre-Mad Men January Jones ruefully explaining that she and her roommates are like, so poor that they all sleep in the same bed and can’t even afford pyjamas is like listening to a seasoned lyric soprano sing the theme tune from Teletubbies. Except that’d probably be pretty funny, where this is just profoundly depressing, actually.
Redeeming features: A very generous reading would allow for the fact that at least this story is intentionally ridiculous, compared to the Andrew Lincoln story in which we’re encouraged to actively sympathise with the terrible male protagonist. There are the bones of a stupid but fitfully amusing teen sex comedy in the American Pie mould here – except Kris Marshall was 30 when he played this role. Think about that for a moment.
Romance rating: 0/10.
7. Hugh Grant harasses an employee
Summary: Hugh Grant is the new Prime Minister. Martine McCutcheon is some kind of Downing Street tea lady who appears to have body dysmorphia and a mild case of Tourette’s. Inconveniently, Hugh finds her very attractive, so he has to fire her after she’s sexually assaulted by the President of the United States (Billy Bob Thornton). He comes to regret this decision and declares his love for her on her doorstep in front of her horrible family and a very surprising lack of paparazzi.
Why it’s horrible: First of all, the obvious. Martine McCutcheon is not fat in this movie. Not even a little bit. Yet at least three characters – including another woman and her own father make crude and insulting reference to her apparent obesity. There is no purpose to this plot detail, save to play into that horribly toxic mid-00s trope of casting a thin woman in a role where she has to constantly be told she’s overweight. Not that McCutcheon wasn’t charming in the role, but why not just cast an actual plus-size woman? It still would have been shitty to refer to it in every scene in which she appears, but at least there’d be some grounding in reality – not to mention a potentially sweet story about a powerful man falling for somebody who doesn’t confirm to the most narrow and conventional standards of beauty.
Also, Hugh Grant’s character is just terrible. His recklessly threatening speech to the US president is basically a nauseatingly tone-deaf Brexit rationalisation couched as a heroic gesture. When Natalie is basically attacked by said president, rather than make any steps to protect her or ensure she’s not been traumatised by the experience, he fires her. The only genuinely good thing he does is show up for his sister at the play, and even that’s a complete accident on account of all British people in London – from working class families to immediate relatives of world leaders – sending their Children to the same school. What a dick, actually.
Redeeming features: The only saving grace of this is the cast. Nobody but Hugh Grant could have made this bullshit fly. Despite being demonstrably miscast as an ambulatory tub of lard, Martine McCutcheon is also delightful with the scraps of dialogue she’s given, and the pair exhibit some genuine chemistry.
Romance rating: 3/10.
6. Colin Firth suffers a textbook mid-life crisis
Summary: Colin Firth discovers that his wife(?) is having an affair with his brother. He goes to France to feel sad and type up crime novels loose leaf, outdoors next to a pond on windy days. Later he abandons his family at Christmas to fly off to Portugal and hastily propose to his much younger housekeeper who speaks no English.
Why it’s horrible: Look, I get it. This story is supposed to be about love transcending language barriers, and there’s a version of it that sort of almost works. But the movie’s weirdly Puritan obsession with every romantic relationship escalating immediately to marriage ultimately kills off any sweetness it might otherwise have exuded. Why couldn’t he have just asked her on a date?
Also, this plot features yet another example of unnecessary fat-shaming in the hi-larious runner about the love interest’s chubby sister, who their father first offers to pay Firth to marry (presumably because she’s so fat and disgusting) and is later referred to as ‘Miss Dunkin’ Donuts 2003′ after she questions the wisdom of her sister rushing into a marriage with a strange foreign man she barely knows. She’s probably the smartest character in the film, actually.
Redeeming features: As discussed, there’s a version of this story that could work, and to his credit Colin Firth sells the questionable material as well as could possibly be expected. Also the mutual mistranslation jokes are admittedly quite funny and charming.
Romance rating: 5/10.
5. Liam Neeson makes some highly questionable parenting choices
Summary: Liam Neeson’s wife has just died, leaving him with a troubled step-son (Jojen Reed) to care for. It turns out Jojen is projecting his quiet devastation over his mother’s death onto a hopeless crush on a schoolmate who shares her name. Rather than encourage him to address these feelings in a healthy and timely manner, Neeson guides little Jojen through a series of terrible schemes to force mother-substitute to fall in love with him. It works.
Why it’s horrible: This is the plot strand that suffers the most from Love Actually’s forced timeline. If it took place over several months, it could have been a quietly affecting story about a widower and his step-son united in working through their grief. However, by burying the mother in week one and having both characters set up with new love interests by week four, it just reads as deeply inappropriate. It’s slightly less awful given they’re kids, but once again the male romantic protagonist is at no point encouraged to actually have a conversation with his love interest, he just needs to make a grand gesture to win her love. That gesture involves racing past security at a post-9/11 Western airport, which is clearly a terrible idea that should have seen Neeson stripped of his parental access rights there and then.
However, the worst element of this plot – and the main reason it doesn’t rank higher – is the runner about Neeson only contemplating a romantic life after his wife’s death should Claudia Schiffer inexplicably show up. Obviously at the end of the film, she does, which is icky enough – to reiterate, his wife is barely cold – but it also leads to a truly disturbing scene in which Neeson threatens to eject Jojen Reed from the house should Schiffer come into his life, so that they can have sex on the distraught tyke’s bed. It doesn’t take a three-eyed raven to foresee that little nugget coming up in a future therapy session, actually.
Redeeming features: In Love Actually’s most consistent running theme, this storyline is once again saved by the herculean efforts of the cast. Neeson in particular delivers a quietly soulful performance as the grief-stricken widower that almost allows you to overlook his questionable parenting methods. Jojen Reed (fine, Thomas Brodie-Sangster who holy shit is almost thirty now) also acquits himself admirably well with the inevitably overwritten child-with-the-soul-of-a-middle-aged-man dialogue.
Romance rating: 2/10 for the love stories, but 7/10 for the acting. Let’s call it a generous 6/10 average.
4. Entitled monster Bill Nighy ruins Christmas for everybody
Summary: Misogynistic rock dinosaur Bill Nighy is throwing away the last fragile shreds of his reputation by recording a horrible Christmas single. He goes on a press tour of abuse that involves belittling Britney Spears, Blue, his manager and anyone stupid enough to buy his God forsaken record. Later he feels mildly guilty about the manager and spends Christmas Eve masturbating in an apartment filled pictures of his own face.
Why it’s horrible: This character is a horrible, horrible person. The arc here is that a wealthy old white man releases a cynical turd of a Christmas record, but we’re supposed to be charmed because he admits that anyone who buys it is basically a complete fucking idiot? He also relentlessly punches downwards, to his manager (yet more fat jokes), Britney Spears (a crap shag, apparently) and the boy band Blue, whose Christmas record we never hear but has presumably been put out in something resembling good faith.
The eleventh-hour reunion with the manager just about works as a payoff, but it’s still marred by some deeply weird choices, namely the double-whammy of the inherent gay panic gag (he’s later seen at the airport with a beautiful supermodel in tow just to underline the fact that like all the major characters in this movie he’s definitely straight) and the bizarre throwaway line in which he invites fat manager to get pissed with him and watch porn. Is that what Richard Curtis thinks a Bromance is, actually?
Redeeming features: This is probably Bill Nighy’s career-defining role, and while that’s a little bit sad, there’s no denying that he’s perfectly cast here – exuding enough louche bad boy charm to overcome the inherently charmless premise. Gregor Fisher does some quietly nice work as the manager too, although the “gay as a maypole” line can fuck all the way off.
Romance rating: I’ll give it a 6.5 for the Nighy/Fisher relationship even if it’s essentially platonic. Because genuine gay romance is apparently far too icky for this movie.
3. Selfless caregiver Laura Linney is doomed to die alone
Summary: Diligent marketing professional Laura Linney is in love with her colleague, Hot Karl. Unfortunately she also has a brother with severe mental health issues, which is a total boner killer. Laura Linney spends her Christmas – and presumably the rest of her life – sad and alone.
Why it’s horrible: This one isn’t so much retrograde as just really fucking depressing, although there are still some major issues with it. First of all, Alan Rickman needs to wind his fucking neck in. The scene in which he calls Linney into his office and demands that she have ‘lots of sex and babies’ with Hot Karl is weighted with the unspoken employer-employee power dynamic. There’s also the uncomfortable feeling that Linney is essentially punished by the movie for having priorities that don’t revolve around her love life. Why couldn’t she just have explained her situation to Hot Karl and asked him to be patient while they found a way to work around it? Once again, lazy, illogical writing scuppers a half-decent story, actually.
Redeeming features: Laura Linney, Laura Linney, Laura Linney. The two-time Oscar nominee is yet another actor who’s way too good to be slumming in this garbage, but she manages to inject her thinly-written character with genuine emotional depth, and the scenes with her brother are as poignant as they are completely nonsensical.
Romance rating: 2/10, but a 9/10 thespian rating for Linney. Richard Curtis really should send the entire cast* of this movie a muffin basket every Christmas from now until eternity.
*except Kris Marshall
2. Emma Thompson gets jilted for a porn star in a Jessie J wig
Summary: After many years of marriage, Alan Rickman still has so little regard for his devoted wife (Emma Thompson) that he can’t even recognise the most famous song by her all-time favourite singer. He also wants to sleep with his sexually aggressive secretary, so he buys her an expensive(ish) necklace. Emma Thompson finds out, and is sad.
Why it’s horrible: It’s during this plot line in particular that I kept having to remind myself – this is a Christmas movie! Every year, people gather around the TV with their family and, of their own volition, subject themselves to this bleak depiction of a marital breakdown. Maybe it appeals in the same way as the routinely miserable Eastenders Christmas episodes? I’m baffled.
Anyway, this one is obviously well-acted and poignant, but like Laura Linney, Thompson is essentially doomed to suffer for being a female character with a brain in a film that posits the ideal romantic woman as one who barely speaks and has no personality of her own. The secretary character is also completely ridiculous, essentially going full Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct in the middle of a crowded office and speaking entirely in clunky sexual innuendo. She might as well have been played by a blow-up doll, actually.
Redeeming features: Look, everyone knows Emma Thompson is as effortlessly wonderful in this as she is in everything, as is Alan Rickman, once again heroically extracting shades of humanity from a despicable bastard of a character. Let’s just give them their due credit and move swiftly on to the finish line…
Romance rating: This plotline is basically a festive reminder that all love is doomed to wither and die, even if you’re as smart, funny and obviously well-matched as Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson. 10/10 for the Thompson lip wobble, 0/10 for any sense of hope or lasting happiness in this cold and unforgiving world. Merry fucking Christmas, Curtis.
1. Martin Freeman & Joanna Page find love in a topless place
Summary: Martin Freeman and Joanna Page are working as body doubles on the porniest non-porn movie ever made. This involves several scenes of Martin Freeman caressing Joanna Page’s naked breasts “for the lighting”. They pass the time with conversation, and end up going on a date.
Why it’s horrible: Everything about the setup for this one is completely ludicrous and it seems only to exist to force poor lovely Joanna Page from Gavin & Stacey to get her breasts out onscreen. It’s also yet another that ends with a completely unnecessary engagement. Seriously, did Mrs Bennett from Pride and Prejudice supervise the script for this movie? That being said…
Redeeming features: Despite being one of the more disconnected, throwaway plot strands in the movie, this is the only one that’s both emotionally authentic and genuinely charming. If you overlook the boob factor, the two characters are fairly evenly matched and they bond over having an actual sustained conversation with one another. Y’know, the way real human beings fall in love, actually.
Romance rating: A pleasantly surprising 9/10. Outside a police procedural, these were the only characters I could ever conceive of wanting to see again.