I get it. When watched in the cold light of 2018’s last gasps, Love Actually has issues. I’m not blind. I am also not deaf, and have listened to Ashley and Justine’s evisceration in their latest episode. I respect their right to rail against the terrible misogynist undertones of Colin Firth falling in love with woman who says NO WORDS to him, the awful fat-shaming of Martine McCutcheon, and the problematic romanticism of Andrew Lincoln’s CREEPY STALKING of Keira Knightley.
Although, I must say for the record that the worst part of the entire film is none of those things, but rather is actually Keira staring at herself on screen declaring, “I look quite pretty, don’t I?!” in a manner so sickly sweet it makes me want to pull my own ears off.
See? I’m not immune or ignorant to the problems with this film. I hear and understand everyone’s criticisms. But here’s the thing: I JUST DON’T CARE. And here (point by point, in chronological order and also by coincidence, ascending order of importance) is why; by a British woman who should probably know better.
1. BILLY NIGHY’S RACE TO CHRISTMAS NO 1
In the UK, the race to get a Christmas No 1 single is A. BIG. DEAL. Everyone remembers tuning in to Top of the Pops as a kid on Christmas Day, or if you were really nerdy, the Chart Show on Radio 1 the Sunday before, to hear who had achieved the coveted spot. Everyone was excited to get their favourite single in their Christmas stockings. The year I got Spice Girls “2 Become 1” in mine, was a particular highlight, and knowing I had helped contribute to their festive career milestone was the icing on the cake.
Over the decades the UK has seen novelty singles, charity records, sincere ballads, religious dirges (Cliff Richard anyone?) and just good old fashioned bops (shout out to Boney M.’s “Mary’s Boy Child”) take the top spot - but it is ALWAYS exciting even though no-one is quite sure why. This year, our Christmas No 1 is a charity song about sausage rolls by a Youtuber I have never heard of, for god’s sake! Absolute madness!
But I wouldn’t have it any other way - and it is why Bill Nighy’s storyline about trying to get this accolade as the backdrop to the movie immediately makes me feel cosy as a glass of mulled wine. The fact that the song he’s attempting to achieve the coveted No 1 spot with is a reinvention of “Love Is All Around” - the lead single of the Four Weddings soundtrack, also written by Richard Curtis - is the in-joke cherry on the cake.
2. MARTIN FREEMAN AS THE ANTIDOTE TO #METOO
Martin Freeman and Joanna Page are porn body doubles - or at least X-rated sex scene body doubles, it’s never quite made clear. They have never met before. They are required to simulate all kinds of awkward sexual positions. And yet Martin Freeman still manages to turn this into a masterclass of consent and respectful courtship. I will be forever grateful to this storyline for being something I can whip out on those men who still (still, in 2018!) aren’t sure how to chat up a woman in a way that doesn’t offend her. MY DUDES, IF MARTIN FREEMAN CAN HAVE A RESPECTFUL CONVERSATION WITH JOANNA PAGE AND SCORE A DATE WITH HIS HANDS LITERALLY ON HER BARE BREASTS, WHAT IS YOUR EXCUSE?!
Extra marks for warming up his hands before placing them in position. So considerate.
3. THE CULTURALLY SIGNIFICANT MOMENT OF HUGH GRANT STANDING UP TO BILLY BOB THORNTON
Let’s skip over the fact that a handsy misogynistic American president is a little too close to the bone right now, otherwise we’ll all be crying, and not in a good way. So even with that aside, the moment where Hugh Grant stood up to Billy Bob Thornton not only for the wonderful Martine McCutcheon (whose size, for the record, is literally not relevant to anything), but for the whole bloody country played into a collective fantasy of the UK’s at the time. In case you didn’t know, for the most part Tony Blair and George W’s brand of "special relationship" was a bit of a national joke at the time. This scene tapped into that feeling by imagining a prime minister who wouldn’t pander to America and let Britain stand on their own two feet as the great bally nation it is!
Wait a minute... Hang on, have I just accidentally stumbled on the cause of Brexit? IS THIS WHERE IT ALL BEGAN?! I mean, Theresa May was even dancing like Hugh Grant this year. Oh Jesus, I might have to rethink my entire stance on this movie…
4. LAURA LINNEY’S LOVE FOR HER BROTHER
When talking about wonderful, beautiful Laura Linney in this movie, everyone always focuses on the love she’s had for Karl, our enigmatic chief designer, for like, ever. (Two years, seven months, three days and an hour and a half, actually.) And isn’t it such a shame, if she didn’t have that mentally ill brother who takes up all her time, she could have had her happy ever after?
BUT DON’T YOU SEE! Not all love is romantic guys. And sometimes life means you can’t have all types of love. She sacrifices her romantic interest in Karl in order to take care of her brother because her love for him will ALWAYS run deeper. Whilst, yes it’s sad, and tough and difficult, it’s also so so beautiful. And so true. Laura Linney is a triumph in that role and you’ll never convince me otherwise.
5. ROWAN ATKINSON’S SO MUCH MORE THAN A GIFT WRAPPER
Guys, confession time. I’ve been in love with Rowan Atkinson since my obsession with Blackadder when I was 11, and I saw Blackadder 2 for the first time. That ruff, that rapier wit, that FACIAL HAIR. Oh my. Now whilst I’ve never really cared for his Mr Bean stuff, I’m generally A Fan. So any cameo of his in this film was always going to make me embrace it to my bosom.
I don’t care that his character is really peripheral, that the original intention for his character to be an angel never really got realized properly and therefore this scene kind of just comes out of nowhere for no reason. Just take it for what it is: Rowan Atkinson gift wrapping an illicit present for Alan Rickman in the most hilarious way imaginable. TAKE YOUR KICKS WHERE YOU CAN GET THEM AND BE GRATEFUL. It’ll all be over in the flashiest of flashes.
6. TWO WORDS: EMMA. THOMPSON.
To be honest this sole point could be my entire defence of this film and I honestly believe it holds up. Emma Thompson's performance of UTTER HEARTBREAK and BETRAYAL in what shall be forever known as The Smoothing of the Bedspread scene, says so much with NO WORDS.
From the lump you can just FEEL forming in her throat as she tears open the Christmas wrapping to reveal it’s a the Joni Mitchell CD that bastard Alan Rickman has bought her, to the tears forming as she realizes that the (let’s be honest) fugly necklace is for someone else and she excuses herself from the room with the BRAVEST OF BRAVE FACES ON. From the scarce tears she allows herself in the privacy of her bedroom, to yes, the smoothing of the bedspread and the sniff and shake of the head as she tells herself that she can’t do this now, because kids.
It’s a fucking masterclass in acting, and - yes I’ll say it - AN OSCAR WORTHY PERFORMANCE. Don’t even @ me.
7. “EIGHT IS A LOT OF LEGS DAVID” AS A METAPHOR FOR FESTIVE EMOTIONAL LABOUR
I’ll admit, it’s a throwaway line. Many can barely remember it when I quote it to them at Christmas parties (because yes, I do that). So why, you may ask, is it at the top of my list of reasons that Love Actually is a brilliant film? Because when Martine McCutcheon’s mum (Joanna Bacon) drops this line to explain to the Prime actual Minister Hugh Grant the complexity of her son’s nativity costume she is speaking for women EVERYWHERE.
Before anyone gets at me with some #notallmen defence - of course I understand that emotional labour is something that most people, regardless of gender do to some extent, but let’s be real. Women have been doing the lions share for centuries and we have only just started speaking up about it. This tiny little innocuous line represents that.
Natalie’s mum is a working class lady from Bermondsey (the dodgy end). She’s got a house packed full of people for Christmas if that hallway scene is anything to go by. I bet you any money she’s buying the presents, she’s wrapping them, she’s keeping the house tidy, she’s cooking the dinner, she’s doing the washing up. But on top of all that, she’s also got to make the costume for the nativity play. And not just any costume - a fucking octopus. Eight really is a lot of legs, David. And it’s not just the Prime Minister that needs to know that. It’s everyone, everywhere who ever wondered how all this stuff just magically happens.
In that moment, with that line, Natalie’s mum speaks for all parents, all mums who have had to do YET ANOTHER THING at Christmas because no-one else thought about it. Not all Christmas miracles wear capes.
Laura-Jane co-hosts Bygones: The Ally McBeal podcast, where she and her sister Eleanor rewatch Ally McBeal through today's eyes. She lives in London with her husband and two cats and has an unhealthy obsession with Beyonce. Want to hear The Cutaways evisceration on Love Actually? Listen here!