It’s that time of year again. The decorations are up and Mariah Carey is blasting non-stop in every shopping centre, driving retail workers insane – so how could I avoid reviewing a classic Christmas movie? Love Actually stands so well on its own that I almost forgot that it was a Christmas movie. Seriously, I almost considered subjecting myself to Netflix’s new Christmas flick The Princess Switch *shudder* (I’m sorry to any fans out there I just can’t handle that much cheesiness in one sitting).
It has been described as “the ultimate romantic comedy,” which can only be said about a film universe in which Hugh Grant is Prime Minister. Love Actually, for those who don’t know (who are you?), follows eight relationships of varying ages and classes in the busy weeks leading up to Christmas in an attempt to show that “Love actually is all around.” Corny as it sounds, I’d like to take some time to defend my appreciation of this film. While Love Actually might seem cliche and downright formulaic, it’s understanding of genre conventions actually lends itself to the film’s success. True, it has its fair share of cliches with over the top romantic gestures, manic pixie dream girls and the all too famous confession of love at an airport. The film almost depends on the audiences understanding of the typical rom-com cliches to present it’s new ideas. In fact, the only way this film could be more self aware is if at some point one of the cast turned and winked at the camera.
Let’s start with the airport cliche and my personal favourite of the eight story lines. That is the story of a grief stricken widow (Liam Neeson) suddenly faced with parenting his, also grieving, stepson (Thomas Brodie Sangster) on his own. We are introduced to these two characters at a funeral. An unexpectedly morbid setting given the genre and despite the lighthearted song that plays as they carry out the casket (I told you it was depressing) the story seems out of place and void of the idealistic picture of romantic love that we, the audience, are expecting. When the son confesses to being in love, we think that it’s that relationship that fits into this movie.
As the story unfolds however, the ‘actual love’ so to speak, is between the father and stepson. It is this that makes it an appropriate fit to subvert the mad dash at the airport cliche. As if to say ‘Ha you thought we were going to use cheap cliches to sell you impossible fantasies that make your life seem unfulfilling. Surprise! Have some emotional depth.’
Another thing that sets this film apart is that it manages to subvert these conventions without cynicism. Though many rom-com tropes can perpetuate problematic ideas and could do with a bit of scrutiny and this goes for any genre. This film uses these tropes to celebrate other more ordinary kinds of love. All while satisfying the soppiest of romantics and without scaring others away – even the most heartless of skeptics who have renounced the romance genre and self-declared their favourite Christmas movie Die Hard seem to enjoy it.
I think many fans would agree that the best relationships in this film are the non-romantic ones. The unlikely love story between a rock star and his manager is another perfect example. In an interview with Richard Curtis (the writer and director) he says that this story line was inspired by the relationships he had with his own work colleagues.
“Sometimes we don’t realise that we spend more time with the people that we work with, than we do with our family and friends.”Richard Curtis 2003
This ties in perfectly with the concept of the film. It’s not about presenting an impossible ideology of the love that we should all be chasing but at looking at love in the relationships we already have, even those that are branded “not particularly newsworthy” by the majority of the media. This scene is also far less glamorous. Unlike the other stories, which explore directly the ideas presented by recycled film tropes, this story is entirely new. Though the rock star lifestyle may seem outlandish and un-relatable, the sense of humour that runs through it is unique. The song they are promoting is self declared as meaningless rubbish, the voice of cynicism coming from the mouth of the characters rather than the film itself. This gives the film the space to question preconceived ideas about love perpetuated by the media while still maintaining the ability to use grand gestures and create fun lighthearted scenes; scenes like confessing your unrequited love with cue cards and dancing through 10 Downing Street); scene’s that have made the film iconic. The story of the work colleagues keeps the film grounded in a way that makes the film more genuine and, in a way, more sustainable. It is this, I feel, that makes Love Actually the epitome of it’s genre.
With that being said, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the cheesiness of rom-coms that are so fairytale that the Grimm brothers are rolling in their graves, nor is there anything wrong with claiming Die Hard as your favourite Christmas film. However, it is nice to reflect on why we like the things we like and even go so far as to self-indulgently analysis them to pieces just in case you wanted to feel a little more intellectual this holiday season. So, to everyone who has made it to the end of this review, Merry Christmas.