Love Actually: a film so awful, it might be a masterpiece

As Comic Relief gets set to air the Love Actually sequel, we assess the merits of the original

It has become something of a tradition round our house to watch Love Actually on the night before Christmas Eve. I'd like to say it was one of those organic traditions that just emerges spontaneously and sustains itself through the love and care of those who partake in it.

But that is not the case. I have forced this tradition upon the house, and I make no apologies for it. Despite the fact that it is demonstrably, relentlessly, vomit-inducingly bad, I have decided that we must watch Love Actually every year from now until we shuffle off this mortal coil. I have decided that, in spite of all the evidence, Love Actually is - and this is where I put on my best Hugh Grant voice - actually good.

It is good for a couple of obvious reasons: it is sometimes funny, and all the music is great. Nothing soothes my soul like the turn-of-the-millennium pop of Dido and All Saints. But it is also good for a less obvious reason - it exposes the nihilistic vacuum which haunted, and continues to haunt, the glib, smiling facade of Tony Blair’s Britain. t shows just how bad things can get when we let hubris get the better of us.

There is only one moment of genuine emotion in Love Actually, a moment which transcends its context because not even Richard Curtis can drain away all the hard-won beauty of Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now. The song cuts through the saccharine smog like a laser, a high-energy beam of pure light from a time when words actually meant something.


The only other moment that comes close is when Liam Neeson bursts through a set of double doors after the school play and roars, with an unbridled passion utterly inappropriate for the situation, "Saaaaammmmmmyyyyyy!". Forget Taken, forget Schindler's List – this is moment for which Liam Neeson ought to be remembered. He really loves that kid.

No sex actually
Elsewhere, Claudia Schiffer's appearance only proves that there is no sense of the erotic in Love Actually. Like some Freudian nightmare, eros is frustrated, misdirected or straight-up cartoonish. Sex, oddly enough for a film about love, is practically non-existent. (The only person who actually has sex is Colin, a bumbling, senseless idiot, whose trip to the US is clearly a dream and never really takes place.)

The most overtly sexual characters, a secretary and graphic designer who both work in Alan Rickman’s office, are wafer-thin figures entirely defined by that sexuality and its power over others. They are not so much people as temptations; unholy mirages in Richard Curtis’ sexless desert of the real.

Instead, the romance in the film is deeply intellectual, because it takes place entirely in the characters’ heads. It is also incredibly inarticulate; the characters simply realise they are in love, often without speaking to the other party. Mark (Andrew Lincoln), secretly lusting after Kiera Knightley’s character – who happens to be married to Mark’s best friend – is satisfied with a single kiss. He can move on with his own life only after driving a stake deep into the heart of his best friend’s marriage.

Courage equal to desire
The question Love Actually poses is this: do we have the courage to act on our desires? Sammy does, Mark does, Colin does. They are rewarded. Alan Rickman's character, the self-described "classic fool", does not, and he is punished for it. Laura Linney's character faces a similar fate. There are no simple happy endings for those two.

The central plot of Hugh Grant’s prime minister falling for Martine McCutcheon’s hired help (one of three storylines where men enter into deeply inappropriate relationships with their female employees), is the most potent version of this because it shows individual desire trumping everything from workplace propriety to international diplomatic relations.

It shows how every instrument of state power can be put in service of its leader’s personal whims and desires. Apparently his driver has no family of his own to get home to on Christmas Eve.

Grant’s prime minister is not a politician with a country, or even a party, to serve – he is a celebrity who stands in for the idea that you can do politics with nothing more than a smile and the odd recourse to nationalist symbolism. He is a liberal fantasy über-Blair, the Blair who stood up to Bush, who would have led Britain into a new age of classless, raceless, frictionless consumption; a never-ending John Lewis ad where everyone can buy whatever kind of comforts they desire.

Love Actually, consciously or unconsciously, exposes the self-destructive logic behind Blair's so-called "third-way". By attempting to erase them, it only makes the faultlines of modern life more obvious. It shows us how the cult of the individual, to borrow some Freudian marketing-speak from Adam Curtis (no relation), has triumphed in our time. Love Actually is fantasy, but it is not escapist. It holds a twisted mirror up to the world and asks us, is this really how we want to live?

  • The BBC's Red Nose Day coverage, on March 24th, will feature a short Love Actually sequel, Red Nose Day Actually, by Richard Curtis, which picks up the stories of the various happy couples from the 2003 original