Let me preface this post by saying that Love Actually is probably my greatest guilty pleasure movie. I love Love Actually. I still watch it a couple of times a year – always at Xmas and whenever I need to have a good cry. It’s the movie I can rely on to have me weeping within the first five minutes, but smiling by the end of it.
However, that’s not enough to forgive it its sins, and there are many.
Let’s start with a little one. Jamie and Aurelia: their love story is framed as a triumph of the heart over the mind. Love is bigger than culture or language, and it will always find a way. RUBBISH! Their love is unbelievably shallow. The only conversation they’ve actually had when they agree to marry is the conversation in which Jamie proposes marriage. THIS IS NOT THE FOUNDATION OF A LASTING RELATIONSHIP.
Also, Jamie attends Peter and Juliet’s wedding, which is portrayed as being at the start of the Xmas season. He pops home to find his girlfriend providing clothes-free entertainment to his brother, goes to Portugal, writes a novel, comes home, learns Portuguese, returns to Portugal (and all the while Aurelia is learning English) and proposes marriage – all before Xmas. No one learns another language that quickly! NO ONE! (And can we say “rebound”?)
A little less flippantly… This is a film which purports to be about the wonders of love in all its forms: traditional rom-com staple romantic love (Jamie and Aurelia, the Prime Minister and Natalie, John and Judy), the giddy crush on your older boss (Mia), the wavering love of a long-term couple (Karen and Harry), unrequited love (or is it?) (Mark), childhood crushes (Sam), even love for one’s mates (Billy Mac and Joe) and sibling love (Sarah). However, there is no space for a single non-heterosexual storyline amongst all this. Not a one. Not only that, but homosexuality is played for laughs: In one of the movie’s few mentions of homosexuality, John explain’s the Prime Minister’s unmarried state by saying, “He’s, uh, married to his job. Either that, or gay as a picnic basket.” And at the altar when Mark and Peter are discussing the stag do, Peter says, “Do you admit the Brazillian prostitutes were a mistake?” Mark agrees, and Peter continues, “And it would have been much better if they’d not turned out to be men?” Hilarious.
Any whisper that a character may be gay must be utterly refuted. At Peter and Juliet’s reception, Sarah asks Mark, “Do you love him?” To which Mark replies, “No, no, no is the answer. No. Absolutely not.” It can’t be a simple “no”. Nothing less than a flat-out vehement denial will do. When Billy Mac returns from the party at Elton’s to declare to Joe that “the people I love is in fact you,” Joe responds, “Well, this is a surprise. Ten minutes at Elton John’s, you’re as gay as a maypole.” Cue much laughter in the theatre. Elton John’s gay, and – oh, lol – gay is contagious, don’t you know? Actually, this could have been a sweet love story had Billy Mac transpired to actually be in love with Joe. But, again, he dismissed Joe’s wee joke – “No, look, I’m being serious here” – and after explaining how he realised he’d spent his life with Joe and how he feels it’s been a wonderful life, he re-exerts both his and Joe’s heterosexuality be saying, “Now, let’s get pissed and watch porn” – standard red-blooded man pastimes.
Actually, I lie. There is one tiny nod to non-heterosexuality in this movie: Colin’s wet-dream fantasy-turned-reality with the easy American girls who are so poor they must share a bed and can’t even afford pyjamas. We see in silhouette the four girls plus Colin collapse onto bed in a giggling pile, the women focused on Colin but certainly touching each other. So there we have it. Female homosexuality is A-OK, as long as it’s for the consumption of a man.
While we’re on the subject of Colin: he is portrayed as a bit of a dopey every-lad who just wants to get laid, but he is a CREEP. In one of his first appearances, he’s distributing lunches to the women of Harry and Sarah’s office, sexually harrassing each one of them as he goes: “Beautiful muffin for a beautiful lady,” “Try my nuts,” “Hello, future wife”. Later, having bombed out after trying to hit on the wedding caterer by insulting her food, he complains to his mate Tony that he can never find true love (ie, a shag) because English girls are “stuck up”. Not the fact that he is a CREEP. It’s the women who won’t sleep with him who are the problem. The movie rewards his creepiness by handing him a harem of easy American girls – and one for his doubting friend Tony, too.
Tony is one of three non-white people in the entire ensemble cast: the other two being the Prime Minister’s aide Annie and Juliet’s husband, Peter. None of the main storylines focus on them. The only one who even features in one of the main narratives is Peter, and although the movie more or less opens with Peter and Juliet’s wedding, the narrative thread it begins is Mark’s love for Juliet. Peter is a bit character in his own love story.
(Mark is, of course, a creep too. If I found that my partner’s best friend who refused to even be polite to me had compiled a video montage of close-ups of me, my first thought wouldn’t be “aww, he loves me.”)
In fact, I see something Othellian in the Peter-Juliet-Mark storyline: black man marries pretty white woman, black man’s closest ally conducts a whispering campaign to split them up. In Love Actually it’s the pretty white woman he whispers to rather than the black man, but there are signs it’s going to be just as effective. After Mark outright declares his love for Juliet – while encouraging Juliet to lie to her husband, who’s right there in the next room – he starts to walk away, but Juliet chases him down the street and kisses him on the lips. Do we believe that Juliet goes back inside to her husband and forgets all about it?
I could go on all day (and I may have a whole other post about the female characters’ lack of agency – maybe closer to Xmas), but my final and most vehement point has to be NATALIE IS NOT FAT. Her ex-boyfriend is portrayed as a dick for saying she has legs like tree trunks, but then Annie, the Prime Minister’s aide, describes her as “chubby” and in possession of “pretty sizeable arse”, her own father calls her “Plumpie” in front of the Prime Minister, and even the Prime Minister and purported love of her life says “God, you’re heavy!” when she jumps into his arms in the airport at the end. But she’s not even a teensy tiny bit on the plumpish side, and the constant snide remarks about her body are just really gross and jarring. The two characters who could in fact be described as being on the plump side don’t get away with it, either. Billy Mac’s manager Joe is called “a chubby employee” and “the ugliest man in the world”. And when Jamie asks Aurelia’s father for her hand in marriage (ick), there is confusion as Aurelia’s father thinks he means his other, fatter daughter – which is obviously funny, because who’d want to marry the fat girl, right?
(I haven’t even had a chance to mention poor wee Sam – his mother has just died, but there’s no exploration of his grief and his callous stepfather calls him a “wee motherless mongrel” and jokes about having sex with Claudia Schiffer in his bedroom!)