In Defense of Love Actually
December 18, 2013
by Ben Turner
The Atlantic magazine has been the source of a heated debate recently. No, not on the subject of politics, or business or even television, but on the merits of the film Love Actually. When the first article, by Christopher Orr, on the subject was published, I was not only surprised at the review of the film, nearly 11 years after its initial release date, but also at a number of the claims it made. Love Actually, at least in my household, has grown into a holiday tradition, and the sentiments of the article not only were unexpected, but felt like an attack. Thankfully, Emma Green's rebuttal in the Atlantic did a fantastic job of not only defending against the Orr's criticisms, but restating the case as to why Love Actually, imperfections included, approaches “classic” levels. For those who don’t know, Love Actually is a film that revolves around an ensemble cast, with around ten separate but interconnected plot lines, set primarily in London, England around Christmas time. While the film’s action involves Christmas and holiday activities, it isn’t quite fair to call the film a Christmas movie. It does not necessarily have a meaning pertaining directly to Christmas, at least in the way a Christmas special would, nor would it have to be set during the holiday season. I believe the film is aided by this though, given the stressful and hectic time of year we’re all used to experiencing.
I want to address the writing of the film first and foremost. A number of the points my friends who didn’t enjoy the movie have made touch on Richard Curtis' writing. In fairness, some elements of the plot are sketchy. But in even the brief exchanges that the characters have, like a stepfather and a stepson, we see not only their emotional struggle, but also that of their own motivations:
“Daniel: [laughs] Aren't you a bit young to be in love?Sam: No.Daniel: Oh, well, okay... right. Well, I mean, I'm a little relieved.Sam: Why?Daniel: Well, because I thought it would be something worse.Sam: [incredulous] Worse than the total agony of being in love?Daniel: Oh. No, you're right. Yeah, total agony.”
In my eyes, this exchange is not only touching, but also powerful. A caring stepfather wants to make sure that his stepson isn’t reeling from loss and grief after the death of his mother, and thus he is consoled in knowing that the young boy is dealing with an entirely different struggle. Sure, loving the most popular girl in school isn’t an easy task, but it’s wonderful that a young boy can respect his own sense of loss while being able to go out and love others as well.
Furthermore, Curtis' capacity to tell ten stories, encapsulating at least some narrative arc in each, with a sense of interconnectedness is absolutely a feat of writing prowess. While it may seem simple, this map shows the level to which each of the characters are connected, an accomplishment which is undoubtedly difficult given the number of films that have since tried this formula and failed (in my opinion) such as Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve.
The general attacks on the film Love Actually surround the nature of the relationships in the film, that the love is superficial and or sappy, that friendships are basic and that the whole film is anti-romantic. Defending each and every one of the narratives would be a long, drawn out task, so hopefully I can speak to the more general feel of the film and why it still resonates with me. Examples of why the film is anti-romantic or unrealistic usually touch of elements of the film that are sad or disheartening. The relationship between Alan Rickman and Emma Thompsons’s characters is heartbreaking, as a marriage falls apart before our eyes. Laura Linney’s inability to find a balance between romantic and familial love is tear-jerking. Nevertheless, these stories should be taken in with the same respect as the more ridiculous plotlines (an British man traveling to America to get with American women, for instance). Why is that? Because love, in its formation between friends, colleagues, teachers and lovers is a powerful, beautiful emotion.
It’s okay to believe in it. Not only that, it’s okay to be a hopeful (hopeless?), gooey, sappy romantic. Sure, you can tell me no one is coming to my door, professing their love with a set of signs and caroling music. Absolutely, you can tell me I can’t learn the drums just to impress a crush. You could even tell me that I couldn’t learn Portuguese just to be able to propose to someone whom I love but have never spoken a word of my own language to. All those things are likely true. Yet, from every touching YouTube-level video marriage proposal to the simplest of hugs between friends, I would contend that love truly is all around us. You can absolutely harp on the less successful relationships: there are plenty of them - both in the film and in life. But, when it comes down to it, I would much rather see a film that touches on so many of these types of love, whether skimming the surface or going deep, and then ties them together with the same, loving sentiment.
I will end with this: IMDB establishes that “The airport greeting footage at the beginning and end of the film is real. Richard Curtis had a team of cameramen film at Heathrow airport for a week, and whenever they saw something that would fit in they asked the people involved for permission to use the footage.“ Sure, it’s no surprise that people are happy to see one another in an airport. No less surprising is it that this is accentuated during the holiday season. But for those of you who never have come home at a time like that, returning comfortably to the loving arms of friends or family, I ask that you give me this moment. Because truly, there is very little in my mind as simple as the joy I get when seeing my family or friends in this situation. The ups and downs (literally) of travel, getting to where you’re going, the trek out to the airport by whomever is picking you up, these all fade as the gates open and as embraces begin. Nevertheless, in my eyes, Love Actually doesn’t tell us what love looks like for each and everyone one of us: It tells us to open ourselves to the love that surrounds us, whatever form that takes.