Love Actually… it’s a Richard Curtis Christmas classic that pretty much everyone has a bit of a soft spot for. While it does have a place in my heart, and I do re-watch it at least once every year, the film is not only problematic (a word not so widely used in 2003) but strangely incoherent in some places. Now, I promise I’m not trying to ruin Love Actually for you all; it lives alongside its equally problematic but nonetheless popular counterparts such as Friends (1994-2004), Ghostbusters (1984), or any Bond film. Each of these suffers from distasteful jokes and narratives; be it homophobic or fatphobic jokes, objectifying storylines or blatant antisemitism. This certainly makes for an uncomfortable relationship for the modern viewer who appreciates these productions while certainly not feeling easy about some of its problematic humour. We ought to consider Love Actually’s implications upon the present day; what it says about feminism, consent, and, much like many other romantic comedies of the era, the unrealistic expectations it sets for love.
The first and perhaps most obvious point of contention here is the focus on male agency; more specifically, white male agency. In a similarly outdated vein, the film is enormously heteronormative; we see nine different romances and all of them are heterosexual. The closest we get to queer representation is the homosociality of Billy Mack and his manager Joe (which also holds a slightly weird and uncomfortable power imbalance). To be more specific, the first relationship presented in the film that properly disturbed me is that of Mark and Juliet. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, Mark is in love with his best friend’s wife (Juliet) and, on the wedding day, films her and only her – the tape consisting of nothing but extreme close ups of her face. There is certainly something to be said about how this moment encapsulates the male gaze; a trope which is already prevalent in 2000s Hollywood, it is actively romanticised in this film. This somewhat stalkerish love affair comes to a climax in the film’s most famous scene: where Mark turns up at Juliet’s door with big cardboard signs professing his love (‘to me, you are perfect’, yadda, yadda, yadda). I can’t deny that it’s a sweet moment; to an onlooker it’s romantic, it’s wholesome and it’s original. However, it’s hugely tainted when we consider he is literally confessing his love for his best friend’s wife while he sits in the next room! Kiera Knightley’s character, understandably touched by the sentiment, inexplicably runs after Mark as he leaves and kisses him on the lips (surely the cheek would do, Juliet?), breaking her fidelity to her husband in the early days of their marriage.
Moving on to Jamie and Aurelia, to cut a long story short, he ‘falls in love’ with his housekeeper, despite neither speaking the other’s language and without having had a coherent conversation with her. He summarily tracks her to her hometown, and asks for her hand in marriage. It is here that we meet Aurelia’s larger and less stereotypically attractive sister, and a father character who berates her relentlessly for her weight. We laugh at her expense, and, while this is meant to be a comedy, it’s not particularly funny. Fundamentally this story tells us that beauty really is skin deep, and if you’re pretty enough, a rich, romantic man will come and whisk you away without so much as knowing your name. (Well, he might know your name, but not much more).
Now to look at Colin and the Americans; this point doesn’t need much explaining to anyone who has seen the film. He goes to America in pursuit of women, and immediately finds three gorgeous American women in a bar, who throw themselves at him and they all go and have an orgy. To fuel this objectifying narrative further, he even brings home one of them for his best friend… like a souvenir… Nice. By contrast, looking at Sarah and Karl we expect to find the classic rom-com ending – she’s a shy girl who wears frumpy skirts, (but underneath is evidently gorgeous, as we see at the office party). But Karl leaves her because she insists on answering her phone to her brother with severe mental health problems, and we’re meant to accept that this is a fair reason for Karl to ditch her? The reason I haven’t mentioned the whole Hugh Grant-Martine McCutcheon narrative is because I’m actually undecided on it. While the power dynamic between a prime minister and his PA is somewhat off-putting, I can’t help but find it quite adorable. Though, if I’m honest, this may just be because I love Hugh Grant, and that dancing-down-the-stairs scene is an iconic moment in British history.
Sam and Joanna are perhaps the most wholesome pairing to come out of this. It’s sweet and unproblematic, simply an eleven year old head over heels in love with the most popular girl in school. He learns the drums to impress her and even gets a kiss on the cheek at the end of the film! It’s great, it’s heartwarming, it’s probably my favourite narrative in the film. Lastly, we come to the film’s crowning achievement: the relationship of Harry and Karen. The presentation of this relationship is raw and honest; it’s heartbreaking, and gains viewer sympathy in a way that no other quite does. Executed perfectly by Emma Thompson opposite the late Alan Rickman, the relationship slowly disintegrates as we watch a man falling out of love with his wife, while she tries desperately, despite her fatigue, to hold on to him. This is the only couple that doesn’t have a classic ‘happy ending’, and I think that really brings this film to another level, saving it from the tragic pitfall that is the ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ conclusion.
All in all, we can’t deny that Love Actually is a problematic film. But does that mean we should stop watching it? I don’t think so. I think we have to recognise that this was filmed in the early 2000s, and to expect 2003 Richard Curtis to live up to 2020 expectations of political correctness seems pretty unfair. So, while we should look at it with a somewhat critical gaze and recognise its issues, that doesn’t mean we ought to throw away the DVDs and break our cinematic Christmas traditions just yet.