Love, Ambivalently

Many beloved Christmas films had inauspicious debuts. It’s a Wonderful Life lost money for the studio when it was released in 1946, but television viewings turned it into a bona fide classic 30 years after its release.

Similarly, Love Actually has unexpectedly become a Christmas staple in some quarters. Admittedly, I belong in that group, even though a good portion of the film makes me cringe, another part really bugs me and some scenes I can’t watch at all. It’s another seasonal conundrum, available on DVD at the Whitehorse Public Library.

Written and directed by Richard Curtis and inspired in its form by Curtis’ appreciation for the structure of multiple storylines in Nashville (Robert Altman’s 1975 film), Love Actually follows a host of characters around Europe (mostly London) in different states of holiday cheer and gloom as Christmas approaches.

Curtis wrote the Blackadder series (with Ben Elton) and Four Weddings and a Funeral; his characteristic style is a blend of comedy with sentimentality.

Thanks to the episodic structure of Love Actually, if you don’t care for one storyline, another one will be along shortly.

Among the nine threads, there’s an aging rock star, Billy Mack (Bill Nighy), promoting a Christmas single with the support of his manager Joe (Gregor Fisher). A married couple, Harry and Karen (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman) are perhaps a little too comfortable with each other.

Karen’s recently widowed friend Daniel (Liam Neeson) is struggling to connect with his inscrutable 11-year-old stepson, Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who played mystical Jojen Reed in Game of Thrones).

Harry’s office mate, Sarah (Laura Linney), finally gets close to the crush she’s been mutely enthralled with for years.

Writer Jamie (Colin Firth) falls in love with the Portuguese housekeeper who tidies his villa in France.

Then there’s the youthful, progressive prime minister, David (Hugh Grant), who might seem less far-fetched this year, in the afterglow of the recent election, than he has before. He embodies a peculiarly English fantasy of the dreamboat prime minister who puts the thuggish American president (Billy Bob Thornton) in his place and falls for the self-deprecating, charmingly clumsy Natalie (Martine McCutcheon).

So what’s not to like?

That depends: Love Actually might be a sort of Rorschach test for viewers.

Characters and scenes that I can’t stand are other people’s favourites and the opposite may also be true. But it’s hard to see how anyone can’t find Daniel and Sam irresistible or the brutally candid Billy Mack brilliantly funny. Still, those people do exist and you might be one of them.

On its tenth anniversary, the online culture magazine Vulture asked whether Love Actually was a Christmas classic. In the discussions that followed, it was revealed that it’s one of the few romantic comedies that men like to watch – or at least, more men than usual for the genre.

The question also spawned passionate critiques of the film’s merits or lack of merits, that add layers of meaning to the guilty pleasure of succumbing to Curtis’ crafty charm. This year I might just capitulate entirely.

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