How to watch “Love, Actually”

There have been a lot of retrospectives written on Love, Actually this year. The Atlantic hates it. Mother Jones loves it. Jezebel makes fun of it. Having just watched it again last night as I do every year, I have my own issues with it: that “Colin goes to America” plotline is absolutely abysmal, a weird wank-fantasy in an otherwise tender movie. Also, it wouldn’t have killed Richard Curtis to replace that lacklustre storyline with a storyline about a queer man or woman. Hell, you could even do that same story about someone going to America — to a city where the queer scene is better/hotter/more interesting/geekier/whatever. Instead we get Betty Draper seducing a charmless lout at a dive bar in Milwaukee. This was an opportunity to something more than throw a bone to the guys who got dragged to the film by their girlfriends. (Those guys got all kinds of bare-breasted action, already, in Martin Freeman’s plotline. They’re doing just fine.) Also, the movie is awfully marriage-happy: one couple gets engaged within a month of meeting, and another is married within two months. There’s no real reason for those couples to even get engaged — it just happens because everything in the movie is dialled up to 11 and marriage is supposedly the telos of romantic life. Similarly, I’ve never really needed the addition of Claudia Schiffer to tie up Liam Neeson’s plot. I feel like it pulls focus from the love story between himself and his step-son.

And I say “love story” because that’s what all the stories in the movie are. They’re love stories. They’re just not all romantic love stories. Some of them are about the love between brothers and sisters, or best friends, or parents and children, or creative partners. Hugh Grant’s monologue makes that pretty clear at the beginning, during the airport sequence. That’s what’s called a thesis statement. You may have heard of it.

With that said, I do watch the movie in a pretty particular way each year. And I don’t just mean the fact that there’s usually a bourbon-and-eggnog in my hand. I mean that as a viewer, I’ve filled certain gaps in the story with my own answers. Scott McCloud talks about this in Understanding Comics. It’s really something everybody does, though — you don’t have to be filling the “gutter” between panels. You can just be imagining what happens in the scenes that didn’t make it into the final cut. That’s how fanfiction gets written. So, without hope or agenda, here’s my fannish reading of Love, Actually. Let’s get the shit kicked out of us by exegesis.

  • After Alan Rickman calls Laura Linney into his office to discuss her crush on her co-worker, notice that he calls in that same co-worker immediately afterward. There’s even an awkward moment in the doorway, because they both have appointments. Rickman closes the door. He’s obviously giving Linney’s love interest the same talk — everybody in the office knows about them. He’s also obviously spoken about it with Emma Thompson, based on the way she urges Linney to dance with him at the party. So I find it hard to believe that Linney will be alone forever — she and her crush are just in an awkward place because she has no way of drawing boundaries between herself and her brother. My guess is that stare at each other longingly until Rickman’s secretary tries to make a move on Linney’s crush, at which point Linney gets her shit together.
  • The love triangle between Kiera Knightley, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Andrew Lincoln actually ends happily in a poly relationship. A month after Lincoln gets found out for his obsession with his best friend’s wife, they’ve obviously talked about it and are fine with it. How do we know? He goes with them to the airport at the end. When asked what he’s doing there, he says he’s “just tagging along.” How many tertiary partners have said this, when they didn’t want to explain the whole network of connection between themselves and their lovers? This reading also makes the gag about Brazilian prostitutes actually being men and Laura Linney’s query about whether or not Lincoln is in love with Ejiofor seem more like clues than jokes. It even explains why Lincoln tries so hard to improve their wedding; he’s trying to impress them both. Otherwise, Lincoln’s character is just accompanying his friends to the airport. Not to drop them off or pick them up. Just because. Sure. I accompany my friends to airports all the time. I love airports. I love traffic. I love being screened by security personnel. Really.
  • Hugh Grant doesn’t fire Martine McCutcheon because he’s attracted to her. (Actually, he doesn’t fire her at all. He asks for her to be re-distributed. She’s still on staff, just not in his particular office at Number 10.) He asks for her to be re-distributed out of the place where she may have been sexually assaulted. Since she hasn’t filed a harassment complaint (against the President of the United States) and since the man who harassed and may have assaulted her (the President of the United States) will be returning to her workplace on a regular basis, Grant finds a way to reduce her risk. It benefits him to have her out of there, because the attraction distracts him and makes him feel awkward, but it’s not the only reason for doing it. HR departments do this kind of thing all the time.
  • Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson are back together by the end of the movie. At the airport, she says “Home,” and they head in the same direction. Also, she got her kids to make a “WELCOME HOME DAD!!!” sign with Puff-Paint and highlighters. Either she’s the queen of passive-aggressive knife-twisting, or she’s genuinely trying to make the relationship work.

All of this might seem a little silly, until you read that Rowan Atkinson’s character was originally supposed to be a “Christmas angel” in an early draft of the screenplay. Sure, it’s a movie that’s composed almost entirely of grand romantic gestures. There isn’t a lot of banter. It never dives deeply into any one of the characters. Music does a lot of the heavy lifting. It’s still better than the vast majority of most Christmas movies, and most romantic movies. Moreover, it’s about what all Christmas movies are about: getting what you wish for. Even if just for a little while. God only knows where we’d be without that.


2 thoughts on “How to watch “Love, Actually””

  1. This is exactly what I do with movies and TV! Nice to know others do it too. I fill in all the bits we don’t see, and then sometimes get so invested in my made up bits that I forget that this isn’t actually canon. I’m not really a fan of Love Actually, but I did enjoy reading your version! 🙂

  2. My wife and I are both big fans of Love, Actually, which is one of those films we work to watch each Christmas. ‘Colin goes to America’ is indeed a pretty terrible plotline that I mostly wait to be over – but that’s one of the strengths, if you don’t like plot 23, plot 24 will be along soon enough. And it sort of fits in a sort of “even if you think you’re as terrible as Colin, you might still find someone who likes you” way.

    But yeah, that plotline’s a mistake, just like the strippers were. 🙂

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