On this tenth anniversary of its release, let me say this: I unapologetically love “Love Actually.” I watch it every year around Christmas, and usually hit some kind of weird patch in April or July where I must watch it and that happens. I’m not proud of myself. Joking aside, this movie is fabulous. There’s a whole host of relationships that are discussed, it happens in the wonderful month leading up to Christmas, and everyone in this movie is attractive and if you disagree with me you’re wrong. Plus that little girl Joanna singing “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is literally everything I’ve ever wanted.
Much of the criticism you’ll see of this movie has to do with its more ridiculous elements, and there are certainly things that happen in this film that are more than a bit unbelievable. No, the Prime Minister doesn’t look like that. No, Colin Firth is not going to learn Portuguese and propose to you. No, a kid can’t just run through an airport. But you know what? That stuff is GREAT. It makes you feel warm inside!
Let Hugh Grant be the prime minister and dance to “Jump.” Let Colin Firth somehow make Portuguese sound kind of attractive. Let a band pop up at the end of the wedding ceremony to play “All You Need Is Love.” Let tiny Jojen Reed (sorry kid, I don’t actually know your name) run through the airport to his gorgeous girl without somehow getting tased and arrested. I am 100% behind all of this ridiculousness.
What I’m not behind are the elements that are actually completely realistic, but hugely problematic. Let’s break those down.
1. This movie fat-shames
This took me a long time to realize (i.e. I only figured it out like a year ago, and I’m mad at myself for taking that long), but there are two plot points that fat-shame characters in this film. Emma Thompson also at one point describes herself as “feeling fat” and “only fitting into clothes once worn by Pavarotti,” which is unfortunate, and could be one of the reasons Alan Rickman later cheats on her, but that moment is left out of this analysis, because she is the only person who comments on her weight.
The first is the most blatant, and involves the Portuguese maid Aurelia’s sister. Aurelia hints at her sister’s size earlier in the film, refusing food and saying in subtitles “if you saw my sister you’d know why.” THANKS CHICA. However, this is nothing compared to what happens when Colin Firth shows up (admittedly adorably) to propose to Aurelia. When he asks Aurelia’s father for her hand, her sister is there instead, and her entire appearance is meant as a joke, as she is significantly larger than Aurelia is. Their father even goes as far as to say she should marry Colin Firth even though she’s never met him (because OBVIOUSLY she won’t get a man otherwise!), and he rudely dismisses her later with “shut up, Miss Dunkin’ Donut 2003.” The audience is meant to laugh here as well, and that is just all kinds of bullshit. This scene might not be put into the film were it made now, ten years later, because I like to think that we’ve come a bit farther in our “not being giant assholes to people who look different from us,” but who knows, really. Regardless, it’s not okay, and Aurelia’s sister has just as much a right to be respected and Firth’ed as Aurelia does.
The second is more subtle but no less awful. Natalie, the assistant to Hugh Grant’s character of the Prime Minister, tells him that her boyfriend dumped her because “he said I was getting fat.” (It doesn’t matter, but this girl is of average size and I want her entire work wardrobe from the film like yesterday because she can WORK that pencil skirt. Unf.) Later, after several totally cute scenes of the two of them being cute, Hugh Grant mentions Natalie to his PR woman, and she responds “the chubby girl?” Grant is awkward, and instead of being like “I’m the Prime Minister can u not with that shit” is all “oooooh wouldwecallherchubby?” To which the woman responds “I think there’s a sizable ass there, yes, sir. HUGE thighs.” I hate everything. Natalie’s fat-shaming bothers me more, actually, because it isn’t even a case of woman-on-woman competition for Grant’s affections, it’s just someone being subtly terrible and cruel in their descriptions. Again, this is played for laughs. Hugh Grant, you drove your country into a potential war with Bush-era ‘Murica by doing the most British speech ever on live TV and calling Billy Bob Thornton a bully and you can’t tell your staff to not fat-shame?
2. The cheating is all the women’s fault
This has three specific instances that I can think of.
The first plot point involves Alan Rickman and his secretary. He’s clearly been married to Emma Thompson for a long time, and they have kids together, but his secretary makes it clear that she wants him. This is obviously not okay, but the extent to which this movie makes her into a homewrecker is super over-the-top. She dresses as a devil for their office’s holiday party complete with horns (really? really?). Her flirting is over -the-top, with her spreading her legs at her desk and saying that the venue she found for the party is “full of dark corners for doing dark deeds.” Alan Rickman, on the other hand, is portrayed as somehow like, tripping and falling into her bed, or something? He just gets awkward when she flirts with him (instead of stating his discomfort, chastising her as is his right as her boss, or filing a complaint with HR), and keeps all of his communication innocent on the surface (asking her if she wants staplers or stationary for Christmas). We’re even shown that he gets Emma Thompson a Joni Mitchell CD because “see look, he still loves her, he’s still a good husband” and we’re treated to a view of Rickman’s secretary dressed all in red putting on a necklace he got for her. When called on it, he’s just like “I was a fool,” and looks sad, so we should feel bad?
Nope. Nope nope nope. It’s not okay that the secretary is going after someone who is attached, but what Alan Rickman does is like a jillion times worse. Stop trying to make Devil Secretary Homewrecker happen. It’s not going to happen. Both people deserve scorn here, but Rickman’s character deserves more.
The second plot point is Colin Firth’s character Jamie’s relationship at the beginning of the film. His girlfriend cheats on him with his brother, and he comes back to check on her while she’s sick and he went to a wedding. He discovers them, and her lines of dialogue are all sexually charged, while his brother’s are more like “derp derp heh heh sorry bro.” This event is significantly less blatant than the first, and it is in fact the woman in the relationship who cheats this time, but still, we don’t ever address that Jamie’s brother cheated with his girlfriend and how that’s a huge betrayal. It’s again portrayed as a woman being conniving and inherently ~*evil*~, while Jamie’s brother just derped his way into his brother’s girlfriend. It reads very much like “lol, men are sooo dumb, right ladies?!” Gross. They’re both terrible, because they’re both willingly ruining a relationship with Jamie.
The third plot point is minor, but just as unacceptable. At one point in the film, Billy Bob Thorton, whose character is literally every terrible American stereotype, has commented on Natalie’s appearance and hit on her (despite his being married). Hugh Grant later leaves the room with Thornton and Natalie, and when he returns, it’s implied that Thornton has attempted to kiss her. Grant later asks for Natalie to be transferred from her position, and while part of it is his attraction to her, he only does this after what is essentially her attempted assault, implying it’s somehow her fault. Natalie’s Christmas card to him later apologizes “for the thing that happened,” and she apologizes in person as well.
Um, what??? None of this is her fault. Grant treats her like she had cheated on him, which is ridiculous, since you have to both state your intentions and then get into a relationship before you can get cheated on. You didn’t call “dibs,” Grant. She’s a person, not a dinner roll. Additionally, Thorton is a slimeball who clearly took advantage of “I’m the President I do what I want” to get closer to Natalie, and this is somehow her fault. She was probably scared that she’d start a nuclear war if she hit him. Stop being a punk, Hugh Grant.
3. There’s one instance of truly unhealthy relationships and it’s treated as romantic
Guys, I have to say it: that sign thing with “to me, you are perfect” is actually the worst.
Let’s back up. Peter and Juliet, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Keira Knightley, have just gotten married, and Mark, Peter’s best friend, has apparently been distant and borderline rude to Juliet forever, in order to hide the fact that he’s in love with her. Juliet has recently discovered this fact, because she requests to see his video of their wedding, which is exclusively shots of her, without Peter. She responds that Mark “never talks to [her],” and he says “it’s a self-preservation thing, you see.” This alone rubs me the wrong way: he was willing to be a complete douchebag to Juliet apparently forever to protect himself. Yes, unrequited love is hard, but he’s never made his intentions clear! This girl has clearly gone crazy trying to get Mark to like her, with no response. Not cool, bro.
So, now that she knows, he shows up and basically proclaims his love to her in the form of cards, hiding all this information from his best friend. She is complicit in this deception, telling her husband that Mark is carol singers. After he explains his undying love and leaves, she runs down the street, stops him, and kisses him. He walks away saying, “Enough. Enough now.”
Y’all, I’m sorry, but this is bullshit. This is how affairs get started. All aspects of this are incredibly selfish, and poor Peter is sitting up in his apartment with no idea that his wife and his best friend just kissed. It’s not adorable, it’s cheating, and seeing as Mark goes with Peter and Juliet to the airport in the “one month from now” scene, it’s clearly not improved. One of the cards Mark holds up states “without hope or agenda,” and I totally don’t buy that. Of course he has an agenda. I feel for him, really, I do, but he is being a terrible friend, and Juliet is being a terrible wife. Yes, everyone wishes someone would show up to their door at Christmas and tell them they’re wonderful, but you should not hope it’s your husband’s best friend. Ugh.
If you can get past all of these things (meaning registering that they’re terrible and moving on), this is still a sweet, lovely, feel-good movie. I’ve been able to do that, and I still love this movie; I may go watch it right now. Let’s go get the shit kicked out of us by love.