What if ‘Love Actually’ is actually not that bad?

The uneven comedy has become as much a Christmas tradition as the ire it provokes

Oh, how we love the great traditions of Christmas. Just try and prise the Victorian confectionary from our greasy fingers once Advent has begun. The season wouldn't be the season without us lying on the floor and remaining silent while drunk Uncle Frankie leant angrily on the doorbell and demanded his annual visit. Maybe that's just us.

In very recent years, the season has also been marked by columns explaining why Love Actually isn't that good, actually (most featuring a variation on that last hilarious echo). I say "very recent" because Richard Curtis's largely horrible Christmas compendium wasn't released all that long ago – 2003, in fact – and it wasn't until a few years later that The Invisible Committee decided it was a copper-bottom classic. Many are the film enthusiasts who, on reading a rhetorical "Why does everyone love Love Actually, actually?" headline, wondered where this "everyone" was to be found. What sheltered lives we must lead. The film has barely had time to accrue the status that is now being repeatedly questioned.

Christmas is defined by ritual

Love Actually opened to polite reviews in the United Kingdom and less polite ones in the US. It did decent box office without threatening to dislodge Titanic from the all-time top 10. The consensus argued that Curtis's debut feature as director comprised a huddle of half-baked, one-line ideas for features that never fully matured. It was as if he'd reached into several years' worth of wastepaper baskets and turned the findings into an anthology movie.

Being a famously agreeable fellow with a track record for ensemble hits featuring upper-class buddies, Curtis was able to attract what used to be called an "all-star cast". Liam Neeson appeared in the gooey episode about the widowed dad who helps his young son romance a pretty girl. Colin Firth endured the creaky, implausible vignette – stupid enough to form the basis for a typical Shakespeare comedy – in which two people, neither of whom speaks the other's language, fail to communicate their mutual regard. And so on.


The film does have its decent moments. The best sequence is probably the one that doesn't even attempt to be funny: Emma Thompson discovering, to the orchestrated strains of Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now, that Alan Rickman, her hitherto devoted husband, loves somebody else. The repeated gag that sees Martin Freeman and Joanna Page, body doubles on mainstream movies, carrying on shy conversations while locked in naked embrace isn't given time to outstay its warmish welcome.

When the film is bad it's very bad indeed. Nobody has yet been able to explain why the sequence in which horrible Kris Marshall travels to America and scores with pretty girls is even supposed to be funny. The kindest thing one could suggest is that it works as a gag at the expense of the audience's expectations. Every instinct tells us there will be a hitch in the roisterer's libidinous scheme. We assume this because, frankly, that's how stories work. Ha ha! This story doesn't work. Get it. That's the gag.

The episode that now feels the most peculiar, however, is the one in which future zombie hunter Andrew Lincoln sinisterly stalks the impressively durable Keira Knightley. Few people described the story that way at the time. But that's what's happening. Had this occurred in a 2018 movie he'd have ended up with a restraining order.

In short, Love Actually is an uneven ragbag of largely indifferent ideas that ends with a rendezvous at Heathrow Airport so sickeningly glutinous it could be served for breakfast in southern American states. Yet it has set in so securely that articles (such as this) are now written every December explaining why you're not allowed to like it.


You know why this is. We addressed it at the start of the piece. Christmas is defined by ritual. Those rituals were initially pagan: we set fire to Edward Woodward while wearing pigs' heads and chanting praises to the Moon God. Then they became Christian: we wept in carol services while our criminally untalented daughter strangled Once in Royal David's City. Then they became secular. We became hungry for new traditions to supplement the old. It scarcely mattered how terrible the work was. If it had sleigh bells and mention of a snowman it would be with us forever. Irving Berlin's White Christmas is a masterpiece, but the film that bears its name – the second to feature Bing Crosby warbling that tune – is a pretty ropey, off-the-peg musical. Sling it on, anyway. That's the ritual. Sling on the dire Merry Christmas Everyone by Shakin' Stevens. Sling on Paul McCartney's useless Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time. Sling on Gary Glitter's Another Rock 'n' Roll Christmas. Oh hang on. Maybe leave that last one off the turntable. You get the idea, anyway.

Have a lovely, familiar Christmas.