There are two main opinions of Richard Curtis’ Love Actually– it’s either regarded as a Christmas classic, or seen as wildly overrated and overexposed. Its status as a seminal Christmas showing has put it alongside It’s a Wonderful Life, Elf and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The film was an attempt by Richard Curtis to tell a multi-tiered narrative, to combine nine separate stories and stack them alongside each other. He wasn’t entirely successful in that goal- the film’s pacing is unwieldy and the plots don’t always follow each other cleanly, but the result has some level of success.
To celebrate our mini-Christmas issue, in this most dreadful of years, I am going to rank all nine Love Actually stories from worst to best. This list is entirely subjective of course, based on how I respond to each storyline. There’s no real right or wrong order. This is simply an attempt to highlight the things that work in the movie and the things that would have been better off on the cutting room floor.
So, without further ado, here goes:
9. Colin’s Journey to America
The weakest storyline in Love Actually seems to be based entirely around the supposition that American women find all British men attractive, regardless of physical appearance. Unlucky yet perpetually annoying Colin Frissell, played by Kris Marshall, decides that the best way to find romance at Christmas is to fly to the States and try his luck there. He ends up in a small Milwaukee bar, where three inexplicably attractive women, including January Jones, are conveniently drinking. Expectedly, Colin’s dreams come true and he returns to England with Denise Richards and Heidi Klum. This story is both childish and boring and it doesn’t help that Colin is a bit of an idiot, who, in the real world, would have been laughed out of the bar (it also seems strange that three gorgeous young ladies are drinking in a shabby bar in Milwaukee). The only positive thing that can be said about Colin’s story is it isn’t excessively big and doesn’t take up a lot of screen time.
8. John and Judy
It’s rarely mentioned that Martin Freeman is in Love Actually, given the number of other big stars in the film and the fact it was made just after The Office had finished. Freeman shares his time mostly with Gavin and Stacey’s Joanna Page, with the two of them playing body doubles who stimulate sexual intercourse on the set of a film. The story goes that the two of them, despite being naked most of the time, are too shy to ask the other out, before John eventually plucks up the courage and they become engaged. This isn’t as stupid as Colin’s story, but it’s kind of like an afterthought, an idea thrown together at the last minute that never really takes flight. John and Judy are the forgotten couple in Love Actually– nothing stands out about them.
7. Juliet, Peter and Mark
In the same year she starred opposite Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, an eighteen-year-old Keira Knightley was at the centre of Love Actually’s most uncomfortable plotline. Her character, Juliet, marries Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Peter, but his best man, Mark (a pre-Walking Dead Andrew Lincoln) is in love with her. He films the wedding video entirely from her perspective before he silently declares his undying love for her on her doorstep, to which she responds with a kiss. This love triangle works at the start, when it seems Mark is jealous of Juliet for marrying his best friend and getting in the way of their friendship, but it starts to go wrong when Juliet visits Mark’s house and innocently says ‘I look quite pretty’. Rather than confront Mark, or tell Peter how his friend feels, Juliet seems more content in letting Mark suffer- the scene in which he runs from his flat and shouts on the street is deeply unsettling, because Juliet has essentially forced Mark into showing her the wedding video rather than sensing his obvious reluctance to do so. A bit more sensitivity in Curtis’ writing could have made this a powerful story of unrequited love- instead, it feels rather tacky.
6. Jamie and Aurelia
Colin Firth was the romcom man of the moment in the early 2000s following his breakout role in Pride and Prejudice. Having tried to woo Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones’ Diary, he turns his attention to his Portuguese housemaid in Love Actually, after fleeing to his French college when he discovers his girlfriend is having an affair with his brother. Predictably, Jamie and Aurelia fall in love, despite her being unable to speak English and after declaring his love for her, they marry. This is a rather heart-warming and touching episode, well played by both Firth and Lucia Moniz, yet it’s rather twee and fluffy, never really feeling like a legitimate story, but rather one you would find in any generic romantic comedy. It comes complete with a scene where they go swimming to retrieve Jamie’s lost papers, which is the turning point in their relationship. All of that said, however, the moment Jamie tries to ask Aurelia to marry him is awkwardly endearing, a trait Firth is terrific at playing.
5. David and Natalie
This is the story that contains Love Actually’s unique contribution to society- a dancing Prime Minister. It pairs up Hugh Grant, Curtis’ former muse, and former EastEnders star Martine McCutcheon as David and Natalie, the unmarried PM and his tea lady, who begin to develop an attraction for one another. After successfully embarrassing Billy Bob Thornton’s President, David realises he can’t ignore his feelings forever and hunts Natalie down, sealing their newly formed romance with a kiss on stage at her old school’s Nativity play. The moment in which Grant’s character starts dancing to Girls Aloud’s Jump has gone down in cinema history as either brilliantly bonkers or cringingly awful (maybe this was what inspired Theresa May’s ‘dance’ a few years ago). Grant always works well when working with Curtis and he plays David with a mixture of street smart and awkwardness, while McCutcheon is a delight as Natalie. The thing that stings about this story are the rather tactless and unnecessary jibes about Natalie’s weight, with several characters, including her father, commenting on it. David may be able to see past them, but there’s no need to belittle a character so often.
4. Sarah, Karl and Martin
Is there a storyline in Love Actually more frustrating than Sarah’s? Played excellently by Laura Linney, she is the quiet, endearing American in love with Rodrigo Santoro’s brooding Brazilian Karl, her co-worker. After hitting it off at the work’s Christmas party, she invites him back to her house, where it seems she is finally going to get the man of her dreams. Halfway through, her mentally ill brother Michael calls, and despite Karl’s protestations, she chooses to go to him rather than continue their dalliance. Their final meeting is on Christmas Eve, where he merely wishes her a Merry Christmas and she spends the festive season with her brother. Curtis’ depiction of Michael’s dependency on Sarah is crushingly accurate, a reflection of the sacrifices people with mentally ill relatives are often forced to make. It’s Karl’s attitude towards the situation that’s irritating- surely, he can’t be that pig-headed that he can’t make allowances for what is obviously a very trying situation? This is one example of Curtis choosing not to wrap things up neatly and, therefore, it’s one of his strongest writing achievements in the movie.
3. Daniel and Sam
The idea of a ten year old boy being in love with his classmate may seem absurd, but it’s not the driving force of the story that gives Liam Neeson one of his most sensitive characters. He plays Daniel, a widower left looking after his stepson Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) when his wife dies. He is left bemused when Sam tells him he is in love with his American classmate Joanna (Olivia Olson), who shares the same name as his mother. After deciding to become a musician, he is a drummer during Joanna’s Christmas performance. When this doesn’t seem to work, Daniel and Sam head to the airport, where he chases after Joanna and she rewards him with a kiss. Why this storyline strikes so well is because its about the bond between stepfather and stepson, this relationship formed through marriage that survives the death of the most important figure in their life and is strengthened by their mutual support of each other. Neeson and Sangster are believable, warm and touching- the moment Sam calls Daniel ‘Dad’ is a wonderful piece that sums up everything the story is trying to tell.
2. Billy Mack
By far Love Actually’s funniest story concerns Billy Mack (Bill Nighy), an ageing rock ‘n’ roll legend who records an awful Christmas single, Christmas is all Around and then proceeds to relentlessly promote it in the hope someone will buy it. This leads to hilarious encounters with Ant and Dec, Michael Parkinson and an appearance on local radio before a party at Elton John’s house to celebrate his success. In the end, though, Billy decides his long-time manager Joe needs company, so he retreats to his house where he tells Joe that he regards him, affectionately, as the love of his life. Billy Mack doesn’t interact with any of the other main characters, but Nighy’s excellent comic timing, some genuinely witty one-liners and Curtis’ obvious fondness for the character result in him leaving a huge impression on the story, to the point where we end up waiting for him to come back on screen. Billy Mack’s love isn’t romantic, or unrequited, it’s simply two best friends who look out for each other and that’s something everyone can relate to.
1.Harry, Karen and Mia
Emma Thompson. Tears. Joni Mitchell. The three ingredients that make up Love Actually’s greatest scene, in a story played out by its two greatest actors. Harry (the late, utterly great Alan Rickman) is the managing director of the graphics design company where Sarah and Karl work- Mia (Heike Makatsch) is his flirtatious, seductive secretary. Thompson is his wife, Karen, who finds a necklace in Harry’s coat and assumes it is for her. When she later discovers it was, in fact, for Mia, she confronts Harry, with their marriage seemingly hanging by a thread. The reason this story works so well is because its believable and truthful- Thompson’s bedroom breakdown is heart-breakingly realistic for thousands of people who’ve felt the same way, while Rickman, the consummate actor that he was, avoids turning Harry into a real villain and instead plays him as someone who is both conflicted and intrigued by the attention Mia is lavishing on him. That Curtis also allows Rowan Atkinson a scene with Rickman that combines comedy with tension as Harry tries to buy the necklace gives a moment of levity to a plot that is taken seriously by the people Curtis has entrusted with it. As an aside, it’s worth mentioning the scene where Karen confronts Harry was suggested by Rickman, who felt the story needed closure, while his tragic death in 2016 prevented the story from being revisited when the cast reunited for Red Nose day special in 2017. Thanks to the combined talents of Rickman and Thompson, this is the story that burns brightest in Love Actually.