Love Actually has become our Christmas Eve tradition. It used to be just the adults watching it while we wrapped presents and ate mince pies but this year it was the whole family (although the youngest looked away during all of the kissing bits, and there were quite a few of these). This is not a standard romantic comedy though, which stands or falls by the credibility of the main couple and their narrative, this is an ensemble piece that shows us love in its many guises.
Richard Curtis creates great supporting characters. Whenever I watch Four Weddings and a Funeral or Notting Hill or Bridget Jones, it is the peripheral characters I love – Scarlett under the table talking about table tennis, Shazza and Jude swearing and smoking, the competition for the last brownie. The leads fade into the background and so we are much more inclined to forgive the nonsensical or contrived romantic denouement. As much as we love Hugh or Julia or Colin and would like to believe in the frantic dash through rain or snow or London traffic for an unstoppable declaration of love, we know in our hearts that love resides most truly in the small moments, where there is no cinematography nor musical score.
Love Actually is all about the small moments. There are stars, those we expect to see in a romcom – Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Keira Knightley – and those we don’t – Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Liam Neeson. There are multiple story lines that intersect, sometimes in unexpected ways, but no single one dominates. There are some memorable lines of dialogue generously sprinkled throughout each story (and recited lovingly by my family). We see the faithful, the cheaters, the cheated upon, the lonely and the innocents. We see unrequited love, adolescent love, the grief of lost love and the joy and burden of familial love. Not all of the threads end with happiness, a dose of reality in a genre inclined to tie up ends with a neat bow.
The still point of the film, for me, the moment that most resonates is Emma Thompson in her bedroom with the Joni Mitchell song playing, not a word spoken but so much said. I think this is where the power of this film lies, beyond the limitations of the genre and our expectations. We see the truth in these moments, that the drama of love, good or bad, happens in the midst of the chaos of our lives. We are never given the luxury of certainty. We don’t always get what we want or what we deserve but we take a chance, we pick up the pieces, we find love where we can.
Love actually is all around.
Bechdel test – pass