It’s December, which means that you’ve probably read all of the daring thinkpieces about how Love, Actually is the greatest holiday movie, ever, despite its many, many flaws, or the other, more daring thinkpieces about how Love, Actually, is the worst holiday movie, ever, because of the aforementioned flaws. And I shouldn’t be adding gasoline to that already overrun fire. I shouldn’t. But dear ones, I’ve spent the last 11 months thinking about this post. It started haunting me on December 26th of last year, the same way you get an idea for a brilliant Halloween costume on November 1st, or how you start eating sugar cubes whole, like a racehorse, immediately after a dental cleaning.
And I need to exorcise this tiny demon inside of me, lest it start inviting its friends over for the most incoherent Christmas Pageant ever, complete with lobsters. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll get there, friends. Patience.
Tradition would dictate that I summarize the plot of the film to you, but I’m not going to do that because it would require me to watch it again. By now you’ve either seen it or you’re my grandmother, who has been dead for the better part of two decades. Besides, I’m not entirely sure that the film has a plot besides … fucking? No, really. Everyone in this movie wants to have sex, and some of them succeed and some of them don’t. This isn’t so much a plot as “the human condition”, but in Love, Actually, all of the disparate story lines are tied together with the clever motif that … they are all friends or coworkers.
Seriously, that’s it.
A few people are related, but mostly everyone is friends with everyone else, and the audience is supposed to be blown away by the fact that people know one another (note: the trope of intertwined storylines has been done well, and if it interests you, check out the 1998 film Playing By Heart, the pilot episode of This is Us, or the Five Short Graybles episode of Adventure Time, all of which accomplish this task far better).
And look, there’s nothing wrong with a movie about people trying to bone, even if said boning has been (and I cringe at this) conflated with love. It is, fundamentally, a film about relationships, which wouldn’t be problematic except for one thing: nearly every single relationship portrayed in this movie is fucked up. Like, profoundly. As in, “you might not want to tell your therapist about this shit because they will probably have to report you to like, the therapy police or whatever” fucked up. And while the audience is let in on how screwed up some of those relationships are, we’re supposed to be cool with other ones.
Sadly, my ability to enjoy this holiday classic is dampened by my understanding of consent and feminism. I’ve decided to share my ruinous Christmas spirit with you by sorting every major relationship in Love, Actually from least to most dysfunctional. Unfortunately, in the end, they all sort of ran together in a huge clump of sex, codependency, and depression. Enjoy, and happy holidays.
Martin Freeman and Joanna Page. I’d seen Love, Actually a half dozen times before I even knew this storyline existed, because it is always left out of TV broadcasts (and Rand and I were way too broke in the early 2000s to go to the movies). Freeman and Page are stand-ins on the set of a racy film, where they meet and start chatting and it is all immensely kind, boundaried, and functional (they just happen to be naked and pantomiming sex acts, hence it being cut for American TV). They’re possibly the sweetest love story in the movie, so it’s understandable that they’ve been left out, leaving more room for the trainwrecks.
(Also: being a stand-in for an actor does not require you to be stark naked in scenes. That director was seriously messing with them.)
Colin and Jeannie, Carol-Anne, Stacey, and Harriet (Kris Marshall and January Jones, Elisha Cuthbert, Ivana Miličević, and Shannon Elizabeth.) The idea of an English guy going to America for the specific purpose of sleeping with a bunch of hot American women who are solely into him because of his accent feels unimaginative and objectifying for everyone involved. But these relationships seem to work. They’re annoying and clearly conceived by a 15-year-old boy, but they’re consensual and there’s no creepy power deferential, and they seem to work.
(Also: from my experience, women do not generally dress like this in the middle of winter in Wisconsin.)
At some point, Colin chooses (he gets to pick!) one of women to take back to England, and I am increasingly curious as to how that was ascertained. Was it a fight to the death? Was it by blind vote? How. How.
They also bring her very hot sister home with them for their friend, like a souvenir you can have sex with, which feels very wrong. But everyone is a consenting adult and they all seem to be having fun, so I wish them well and hope they use lots and lots of condoms.
Billy Mack and Joe (Bill Nighy and Gregor Fisher) Bill Nighy might be the best fucking thing about Love, Actually. He’s plays Billy Mack, a washed up rocker, and spends the entire movie lilting around like the love child of Keith Richards and a bottle of Viagra, with the haircut of the little girl on the Morton salt container. He’s an asshole, but he’s totally self-aware, unlike the other assholes in the movie.
After numerous failed marriages and love affairs, Billy ends up realizing that one of the best, most loving relationships he has is his friendship with his manager, Joe.
“It’s a terrible, terrible mistake, Chubs, but you turn out to be the fucking love of my life. And to be honest, despite all my complaining, we have had a wonderful life.”
But of course, he can’t express that in a functional way. Instead, he fat shames his manager so incessantly THAT HIS NICKNAME FOR HIM IS CHUBS. Billy is a raging asshole and his manager puts up with because codependency is a hell of a drug.
Sam and Joanna (Thomas Sangster and Olivia Olson). Thomas Sangster plays Sam, who has a crush on one of his classmates, Joanna, played by Olivia Olson (he’s also going through some personal stuff that we’ll get to later). That part is sweet and normal. Where it gets weird is that Sam somehow decides to woo Joanna by learning the drums in two short weeks (HOW?) and somehow landing a role in the Christmas pageant (which makes no sense because PRESUMABLY PARTS WERE ASSIGNED PRIOR TO HIM LEARNING HOW TO PLAY THE DRUMS). And when that doesn’t work he busts through airport security to tell her he is in love with her (note: if that kid wasn’t white, he’d still be locked up somewhere for that stunt). He does all this, even though, you know, HE HAS NEVER TALKED TO HER BEFORE.
Joanna seems to reciprocate Sam’s feelings, so we don’t get some creepy tween stalker thing going on.
Plus, it’s not like grown-ups are doing this ridiculous boundary-crossing bullshit where they claim they’re in love with people they’ve never talked to, right? RIGHT? (Spoiler: they are.)
Jamie and Aurelia (Colin Firth and Lúcia Moniz) There was a time, when I was young and impressionable (i.e., stupid), that I swooned at the concept of falling in love with someone without actually speaking a common language. But then I actually fell in love and realized that talking is an important part of that. You should want to have conversations with your partner, and to share your ideas and feelings and be able to communicate with more than just smoldering glances, because it is very hard to convey complex messages in smoldering glances. A SMOLDERING GLANCE CANNOT TELL YOU IF YOU NEED TO UNLOAD THE DISHWASHER OR BUY MILK OR THAT ONE OF YOU HAS AN STD.
Yes, Firth and Moniz are adorable. Sure, he’s forty-something, recently been cheated on and rebounding with his 20-something *checks notes* … housekeeper? Oh. Oh, no. He’s her boss. I … oh boy. (You will soon learn that everyone in this movie is trying to bone their coworker or employee. Everyone.) Anyway, he learns to speak Portuguese and she learns English, which is maybe something that should have happened prior to them falling in love.
Daniel and Sam (Liam Neeson and Thomas Sangster) Neeson plays Daniel, a recent widower. Like, really recent. But apparently he’s like THE ONLY ONE WHO SEEMS TO CARE THAT HIS WIFE HAS JUST DIED. And everyone tells him to sort of suck it up.
“Get a grip, people hate sissies. No one’s ever going to shag you if you cry all the time.” – Emma Thompson’s character, Karen, to Daniel. No, really.
(Is this an English thing? Or like, does he just have really shitty friends? Because I cannot imagine saying anything besides “THIS IS BULLSHIT AND I AM SO SORRY, HERE ARE SOME COOKIES” whenever my friends go through something traumatic.)
Anyway, Neeson’s stepson, Sam (Sangster) is upset, but apparently he’s not really that upset about his mom dying, but rather because he’s in love (which feels like how a kid would react to a loss that big). And Liam Neeson decides that he will do everything possible to make this love blossom, including buying the kid a drum kit, even though what he really needs is a grief counselor. Honestly, the entire thing feels like a thin excuse to play Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” during the holiday play, which features lobsters and an octopus, and feels like you’re watching Zoobilee Zoo after drinking too much DayQuil.
Also, at some point Daniel tells Sam that if he meets Claudia Schiffer, they’re going to want to have sex in every room in the house, including Sam’s, so he’ll have to kick him out.
(Oops, wrong movie.)
And he refers to him as a “wee motherless mongrel,” which feels like sort of humor that might be lost on a kid whose mom has just died. I’m cutting them both some slack, though, on account of they’re both going through a hard time. Stay strong, lads.
Sarah (Laura Linney) and everyone. Alright, so Sarah (Linney) is taking graphic dating advice from Harry (Alan Rickman), who seems to be her boss (see below), which is problematic in and of itself, but she also has one of the saddest, most textbook cases of a codependent relationship with her schizophrenic brother who lives in an institution. She’s his primary caretaker (and she calls him “babe” which is … sexually confusing). He calls her constantly, and she picks up the phone constantly.
It’s so extreme that it interferes with her romantic life in a scene that is absolutely agonizing to watch.
It’s heartbreaking and also infuriating. HANG UP THE FUCKING PHONE, SARAH. AND STOP TAKING DATING ADVICE FROM YOUR BOSS. AND FALL FOR SOMEONE WHO IS EMOTIONALLY MATURE ENOUGH TO REALIZE THAT YOU HAVE FAMILIAL OBLIGATIONS.
Juliet and Peter and Mark (Keira Knightly and Chiwetel Ejiofor and Andrew Lincoln). Keira Knightly was 18 (18!) when this film came out and she’s cast as a newlywed because … ugh, I don’t know. Every woman in this movie is much younger than her male counterparts. Anyway, Mark (Lincoln) and Peter (Ejiofor) are best friends, and Peter is married to Juliet (Knightly), who Mark apparently hates. But wait, that’s not correct! He actually LOVES her. And the reason he treats his best friend’s wife terribly is because he is so madly in love with her. Because obviously that’s what you do when you care about someone.
But what’s really messed up is this scene, which would be sweet were it not happening between a woman and her husband’s best friend:
Mark shows up and confesses love to Juliet while Peter unwittingly sits upstairs watching TV. It’s so unnecessary, and completely unfair to everyone involved. It’s shitty of Juliet to not shut that thing down immediately, but Mark is the real trash person here. You don’t do this to people you profess to care about.
Harry (Alan Rickman) and everyone. Let me be clear: the late, great Alan Rickman can do no wrong in my eyes. He was brilliant in Die Hard (which isn’t a Christmas movie. Nope. Don’t even start, pumpkins), and he is possibly one of the best parts of Galaxy Quest, a film that is made up almost exclusively of great parts. But dear god, he is a walking sexual nightmare in this movie. Harry (Rickman) works with Sarah (Linney), and at one point confronts her about being in love with another coworker.
Sarah is mortified but owns up to it, at which point Harry tells her to have lots of sex and babies with said coworker. Which is charming when it’s coming from Alan Rickman, the snarky BFF we all want and need, but it’s illegal when it’s coming from Alan Rickman, your goddamn boss. Harry is married to Karen (Emma Thompson), the mother of his two children. And THE FUCKER CHEATS ON HER WITH HIS SECRETARY. Karen actually finds the gift he’s going to give the other woman and thinks it’s for her, and the scene where she figures it’s not is fucking devastating.
Oh, and also, the necklace looks like a butt.
Emma Thompson is a thespian goddess who has a pair of Oscars and they made her cry over a necklace that looks like a butt and that is unforgivable.
David and Natalie (Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon). True story: the first time I saw Love, Actually, and Martine McKutcheon’s Natalie appeared on screen, I looked at Rand and said, “Holy crap, that woman is sorta shaped like me.” And I was so excited because having curves in the early 2000s was basically an unforgivable sin. Then, immediately afterwards, THE OTHER CHARACTERS SPENT THE ENTIRE MOVIE TALKING ABOUT HOW FAT SHE IS. Her dad even nicknames her “Plumpy” because she’s like, a size 8 (oh god, the horror.)
Say it with me: characters in a story shouldn’t focus on what someone looks like unless it’s a story about how fucked up it is to focus on what someone looks like.
Anyway, Hugh Grant is David, the Prime Minister (insert heavy sigh because this is just ridiculous-pants). Even though he was 43 when the movie was filmed, everyone talks about how old he is. He immediately gets a crush on Natalie, who is a housekeeper at Downing Street, and it appears to be reciprocated but it’s hard to tell because he’s 15 years older than her and also he’s her boss and ALSO THE PRIME MINISTER. Like, what the fuck does consent even mean with that sort of power deferential?
Anyway, at some point, Billy Bob Thornton shows up as THE FRIGGIN PRESIDENT and David walks in on Natalie looking scared out of her mind while Thornton is leaning in creepily and appears to be licking her eye.
But here’s the fucking kicker: DAVID BLAMES NATALIE. I mean, he blames the President, too, and has this weird monologue in front of the press about standing up to the U.S., which probably ignites some sort of trade war and also manages to slut shame Natalie in the process. Then Prime Minister David relocates her to a less prestigious job.
To recap: she gets assaulted by the President, and the Prime Minister demotes her because he has a crush on her. That is a thing that happens in this movie about romance and Christmas.
David eventually has a change of heart, realizes he likes her, and tracks her down like a creepy ass stalker. When he finally finds her she keeps telling him that “nothing happened” with her and the President.
GIRL, YOU DO NOT OWE HIM AN EXPLANATION.
(Note: In this very cute scene where he picks her up? He also TALKS ABOUT HOW HEAVY SHE IS.)
Anyway, this blatant abuse of power is so fucked up that it wins the award for most fucked up dynamic in a movie full of them. Yay!
I have tried time and again to glean some sort of moral out of this movie and the best I can come up with is that Love, Actually‘s goal is to illustrate how fucked up relationships can be. I supposed it succeeds in doing that, but that’s not what most people want from a romantic holiday movie. Every time I watch it, I find myself hoping that things will turn out okay in the end, even though I know they won’t. It feels like a perfect metaphor for a terrible relationship: you keep hurling yourself at it even though you know it’s all going to turn out to be a bunch of bullshit.
Love shouldn’t work like that. It can be difficult sometimes, but it’s also fun and rewarding and respectful. You grow and learn. You talk to one another. You celebrate your 18th Christmas together.
And then you go and watch Scrooged.
P.S. – I didn’t include this relationship in the list above because I just learned it existed and it was cut from the final film – an unfortunate choice, in my opinion. It’s the story of the school’s headmistress and her longtime partner, and it’s just beautiful. And yeah, I gasped at the final scene because … well, just watch it and see.