Film

Love Actually: Is it a Christmas classic or an unwatchable schmaltz-fest? 

Richard Curtis' festive film is flawed and charming, a somewhat ahistorical time capsule of a Blairite Britain that maybe never actually existed

Montage of stars of Love actually

Hugh Grant, Andrew Lincoln, Keira Knightley, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Colin Firth, Bill Nighy (and friends), Billy Campbell (as an octopus) and Martine McCutcheon are among the huge cast

I feel it my fingers, I feel it in my toes… but it’s not just your chilled extremities that signal the festive season’s approach, it’s the return of that preeminent Christmas rom com, Love Actually, to TV schedules. This year more so than ever as the film returns to cinemas to celebrate its 20th anniversary. 

Love Actually’s position as one of Britain’s most beloved Christmas films could be attributed to our unchanging tastes. The cultural markers of the 2003 movie are still very much present in modern Britain. As a toddler at the time, I was too young to remember this period but on a pop-culture level the connective tissue between then and now is obvious.  

As many stars of the 2000s are enjoying comebacks – from reunion tours (S Club, NSYNC) to sympathetic, reappraising documentaries (David Beckham, Robbie Williams) – the film’s cultural signposts remain central to our national identity. And in terms of fashion, the Y2K ‘revival spiral’ has re-popularised everything from low-rise jeans to cami tops – suddenly Keira Knightley and Heike Makatsch’s styling from the film mirrors the high street racks, Depop listings and design college projects. 

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Writer-director Richard Curtis’s ensemble vision weaves together a tapestry of relationships that prove the special power of love at Christmastime: from office crushes and romance that conquers language barriers, to potty-mouthed meet-cutes with the ruling class. 

The film’s cast of stars, including Emma Thompson, Rowan Atkinson, Colin Firth and Alan Rickman, is led by Hugh Grant. After Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999), and Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), Grant had emerged as Curtis’s loyal rom-com work husband. By the time of Love Actually’s release in 2003, Britain’s favourite bumbling posh boy and sensitive sex symbol was well on his way to the national treasure status he enjoys today.  

These days, Grant’s roles are embellished with eccentricity: in 2017 he was the camp antagonist in modern cinema’s opus, Paddington 2, and on the big screen in Wonka this Christmas he will be rendered small and subordinate as the quirked-up oompa-loompa to Timothee Chalamet’s chocolate impresario. 

Back then, in Love Actually, Grant played David, Britain’s new prime minister – and our window into the film’s imaginary version of the government. Though his affability, disarming grin and self-effacing nature towards household staff rounds him out as a Good Guy, Curtis never clarified to which party David belongs, and that ambiguous centrism is palpable – he is mostly equivocal, rarely assertive. But there is some comic value in how oversimplified the operations in Downing Street appear in the film.  

We watch a passive cabinet meeting take place, in which the business of the day is inexplicably light and vague. And after an at-best tepid speech, the PM is described on the radio as an “arse-kicking prime minister”. In Curtis’s whimsical depiction of No 10, the atmosphere is entirely easy-going. (Watching it post-partygate, we can wonder if, perhaps such a relaxed environment is true to life … though let’s not dwell on the image of Boris Johnson shaking his hips to The Pointer Sisters like Hugh Grant.) 

There is zero mention of any tangible policies, just polite, vapid exchanges and the extolling of values that are supposedly unique to Britain. But aren’t those the imaginary days we long for? After years of scandals and cruel soundbites, politicians have become pariahs.  

Some useful geopolitical sense exists within this fantasy British establishment, as Hugh Grant publicly condemns the visiting American president owing to his sleazy advances towards his tea lady. Billy Bob Thornton’s imposing leader of the free world, complete with a smarmy rictus grin, is perhaps a composite of a few different POTUSes: Clinton, Bush, and a prescient Trump characterisation. 

Grant/David tells his US counterpart: ”I love that word relationship. Covers all manners of sins, doesn’t it? I fear that this has become a bad relationship. A relationship based on the president taking exactly what he wants, and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to Britain.” 

In these bleak times, it is natural to resign to familiar, cosy comforts and embrace escapism, and Love Actually lets us do that. It is a flawed and charming film, a somewhat ahistorical time capsule of a Blairite Britain that maybe never actually existed.

After 20 years, Love Actually is still a very agreeable fix of seasonal schmaltz. Though it’s been parodied plenty for its saccharine indulgence, as well as rightly called out for the undeniable shortcomings that muddy its legacy (dated misogynistic and fatphobic jokes, and moments of creepy pursuit), the film’s popularity endures.  

Its superpower is its ultimate rejection of its own British cynicism; making a full-bodied, earnest call to believe in love. Let that sincerity validate our nostalgia. Love matters more than anything and it will prevail. That will always be a worthy message to return to. 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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