Love Actually Review

Love Actually is the clearest sign yet that Richard Curtis, far from wanting to be Woody Allen or Billy Wilder, obviously wants to be Robert Altman. Curtis’ debut is a comedy-drama which intertwines a closely connected group of characters and their complicated lives and it’s surprisingly ambitious for a filmmaker whose parochialism has always been one of the keys to his success. Not all that ambitious, I hasten to add, since we’re still in the world of the London middle classes, but the structure is a clear advance on the schematics of Notting Hill even if the characters and jokes are, broadly speaking, interchangeable.

There are a lot of stories, most of which interconnect at some point. The new Prime Minister (Grant) falls in love with his lowly assistant (McCutcheon); Mark (Lincoln) is in love with Juliet (Knightley), his best friend’s wife; professional stand-ins John (Freeman) and Judy become very friendly on the job, as it were; Daniel (Neeson) is recovering from losing his wife to cancer while trying to sort out his son’s love life; Harry (Rickman) and Karen (Thompson) fall out of love while Harry’s eyes stray; yobbish Colin (Marshall) goes to America to find some women who might have even the vaguest interest in screwing him; Sarah (Linney) finds herself lusting after a co-worker; Jamie (Firth) recovers from his wife’s infidelity in France with the assistance of a Portuguese secretary; and ageing rocker Billy Mack (Nighy) has an unexpected Christmas hit while suddenly discovering that he’s in love with the most unlikely of people. At the end, many of the characters collide at the most unlikely school concert ever put on film.

Needless to say, the film is all about love. In the world of Richard Curtis, love is the ultimate solution to every ill, whether social, spiritual or psychological; its the ultimate panacea which can bring peace, love and wellbeing to everyone in need. If only life were like this, we say, as we happily munch our popcorn and happily accept every manipulative, condescending, simplistic and vaguely insulting platitude. It may take some time and cost a few tears, but love will ultimately bring everything right side up. It was after about an hour of this that I couldn’t help recalling some lines from Philip Larkin’s poem “Love Songs In Age” which show up just how superficial this film really is:

“The glare of that much-mentioned brilliance, love,
Broke out, to show
It’s bright incipience sailing above,
Still promising to solve, and satisfy,
And set unchangeably in order. So
To pile them back, to cry
Was hard, without lamely admitting how
It had not done so then, and could not now.”

If only Richard Curtis could think as deeply as this and acknowledge that love is not necessarily a solution and often a problem in itself, then the film might conceivably have worked. I’m not entirely sure it would have done though. Such a darker side is hinted at in the unrequited love that Andrew Lincoln feels for his best friend’s wife, played by the very popular (somewhat mystifyingly to these eyes) Keira Knightley. But as soon as anything complicated or messy is hinted at, Curtis escapes into easy laughs and pat resolutions. The aforementioned triangle is simply dropped from the film until the end when we see them all smiling. Take the story involving Colin Firth for example. It’s very convenient for the film that, upon moving to France for the winter, he immediately meets his soulmate, but does this happen anywhere but the movies ? If it’s not Eros sorting things out, it’s the clammy embrace of familial love. In one single scene, Curtis gets somewhere close to where he should be. Emma Thompson, having realised that her husband is having an affair, stands in her bedroom listening to “Both Sides Now” and wondering what happened to her life. It’s a powerful moment, largely thanks to Thompson’s skill, and nothing else in the film gets close to it. A potentially electrifying confrontation between her and Rickman is completely and utterly wasted. The Laura Linney storyline has some potential as her lust for a hunky co-worker is interrupted by calls from her mentally ill brother but this is never explored and seems to be resolved in a couple of scenes of Linney bonding with her brother. In other words, familial love is strong enough to bring resolution in itself. I don’t think things are ever as simple as that – Linney just looks like a saint and it’s not satisfying.

The Altmanesque interconnecting is done with a reasonable amount of skill and reminds us that, when he was a writer of unpretentious TV comedy, Curtis had a fine grasp of structure. It’s not overdone but the links are there; Thompson is Grant’s sister; Linney works for Rickman as does Peter; Neeson is Thompson’s oldest friend; Marshall serves drinks at Knightly’s wedding; most of the characters encounter Nighy either on TV or the radio. The weaving in and out of each others lives is well achieved and gives the film a measure of reality. What does, somewhat, frustrate me however is that in trying to build a broader canvas, Curtis’s range of characters remains so limited. Most of the people in the film are middle class or higher, living in nice comfortable houses with lots of friends. Lower class people are woefully patronised – they either say funny things and embarrass themselves while covering it with a giggle or they’re simply comic relief. It's also the case that Curtis has lumbered himself with too many characters and some of them are shuffled off screen without any proper resolution. In the best multi-character films, such as Altman's A Wedding or Short Cuts, you get the sense of a fully realised group of people who are leading lives independent of the film whenever they leave the central focus. Here, you just get the feeling that Curtis can't be bothered to write them anymore. Given this apparent lack of interest, it's odd that he lets the film drag on for at least half an hour longer than it needs to.

I didn't expect to like the film much but in the event of watching it, I found it a rather horrible experience. The first nail in the coffin, for me at any rate, is the voiceover which opens the film. Amid various shots of people embracing each other at Heathrow Airport, Hugh Grant assures us that this is a place full of warm, loving emotions. This generalisation aside, what I found really tasteless and oddly offensive was the subsequent mention of the victims of the Twin Towers disaster. Can Curtis really not find any way of giving significance to his cruddy little film without bringing the pain of real people into it ?

The second nail was the casting of Hugh Grant himself. In Four Weddings and a Funeral, Grant established a memorable comic persona and he embellished it in Notting Hill. But he is capable of more, as his brilliantly bitchy performance in An Awfully Big Adventure made clear, and his skill at being a complete bastard in Bridget Jones’ Diary and his surprisingly complex and remarkably unsympathetic characterisation in About A Boy, made me expect more of him. But in this film he lapses back into the same schtick he overused in Two Weeks Notice and which surely requires little more of him than simply learning the lines and turning up on time. The character isn’t thought through either. Is he meant to be a Tory ? If so, why is he so politically correct, concerned about being egalitarian and not wanting to seem too snobbish to McCutcheon ? If he’s New Labour, what’s happened to the current incumbent ? If he’s a Liberal, what planet is Richard Curtis living on and which electoral system does it use ? I guess this isn’t meant to matter. But once he begins laying down the law to the US President (a self-amused if not very funny cameo from Billy Bob Thornton), the film goes on a direct route to la-la land. It would surely be in any Conservative Prime Minister’s best interests to cultivate a relationship with America to avoid angering the Euro-sceptic elements of the part ? I realise most readers will be thinking “He’s taking this far too seriously” but when a film is meant to be a soufflé, it’s wise not to introduce any ingredients that are likely to cause heaviness. While on the subject of Mr Grant, I would probably be wise to avoid mentioning his excruciatingly embarrassing dance scene but as it’s now burned on my retinas from now until the end of eternity, I don’t see why I shouldn’t share my horror.

Luckily for all of us, Bill Nighy is here to save the day. Nighy has always been a hugely entertaining actor and his comic turn in Still Crazy remains one of the highlights of British cinema for me, but he’s so good in this film that he saves it from itself. Everything Nighy does is funny, even when he’s embarrassing himself into confessing to someone that “You’re the fucking love of my life”. He redeems even the most tired sequences and creates a really memorable character. None of the other actors manage to do much with the material, except for the aforementioned Thompson and a pleasantly understated Alan Rickman. Colin Firth plays the same character he played in Bridget Jones, Liam Neeson looks as if he wants to fade into the background after sharing all his scenes with the most vomitously precocious child since Ricky Schroder in The Champ. Martine McCutcheon doesn’t show any great signs of unusual talent but is inoffensive, Laura Linney looks as obsessively tyrannical as she did at the end of Mystic River, Kris Marshall makes you long for the subtle understatement of Rik Mayall and the various other TV faces make virtually no impression at all.

I realise that my grouchiness is going to get me the Grumpy Critic of the Year award and I also realise that millions of people are going to see this film and love every minute of it. But I’m afraid that I can’t get enthusiastic about a film which indulges in quite so many bland simplifications and clichés as this one does. If Curtis could have come up with a few knockout one-liners then it might have saved the film but his wit seems oddly blunted. Swearing is used for cheap laughs – usually involving either McCutcheon or the kid – and the dialogue wilts when it should sparkle. By the time Neeson and son are making a headlong dash for the airport so the little tyke can indulge his pubescent crush on some American girl who sings like Britney Spears in a wind tunnel, I could barely bring myself to watch any more. Incidentally, Rowan Atkinson turns up to be unfunny on two occasions. Is anyone but me old enough to remember when Atkinson’s appearance in a film might have conceivably been considered a good thing ?

The Disc

Whatever my feelings about the film itself, there’s no doubt that Universal have given Love Actually a fantastic DVD transfer. Presented in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and anamorphically enhanced, the film looks simply stunning. Not a single sign of artefacting, no edge-enhancement, glorious colours, plenty of detail. In short, this is reference quality stuff about which I can’t find a single criticism.

The soundtrack is equally good. Although we don’t get a DTS soundtrack – something which will doubtless irritate a large number of people – we do get a very pleasing 5.1 mix. It’s not the kind of film which encourages an all-guns-blazing surround track but the overall feeling is warm and involving with plenty of strong musical moments and use of all channels at various times. In terms of the material it is serving, this is just as good as you would expect.

There are a small number of bonus features included. The best of them is a commentary from Richard Curtis, Hugh Grant, Bill Nighy and Thomas Sangster. This is chatty and friendly and sometimes more genuinely amusing than the movie. “Music Actually” contains the engagingly cheesy Billy Mack music video for “Christmas Is All Around” and five ‘music highlights’ which turns out to be songs from the film with gushing introductions from Richard Curtis. “Behind Love Actually” is where you’ll find the link to the commentary (although using your Audio button is probably easier) along with some deleted scenes and a brief making-of featurette called “The Storytellers”. The latter is pleasant enough but absolutely nothing special or insightful, running just under ten minutes. Ten deleted scenes are included. These are introduced by Curtis and presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 and 2 channel stereo sound. Quality is generally as good as the main feature. I didn’t think any of these were worth including to be honest and none of them suggested evidence of the big laughs which I found missing from the finished assembly. Finally trailers are included for Thunderbirds and, somewhat bizarrely but good-heartedly, Oxfam.

The animated menus are nice first time you see and hear them but are cumbersome and distinctly annoying when you’re trying to navigate through the disc. Craig Armstrong’s nice if unmemorable music score is badly overused here. The film has been divided into 20 chapter stops and English subtitles are included for the main feature and, with the exception of the trailers and music video, all bonus material.

Love Actually was a huge hit in cinemas and will doubtless sell by the truckload on DVD. But not one single minute of it has anything like the charm or wit of Curtis’ first film script, the quirky The Tall Guy, and I wish he could get back to doing something on a slightly less self-consciously large scale. However, Universal are to be warmly congratulated for providing such a knockout transfer for what will be one of their biggest releases of the year.

Love Actually is released on R2 to buy from the 19th March

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