Ranking every plot strand in Love Actually
For the first time ever, Ford On Film is celebrating Christmas by talking about a festive film. Love Actually, Richard Curtis’ 2003 smash hit comedy about a wide variety of sickeningly rich and beautiful ‘ordinary people’ and their interconnecting lives around the 25th December, is one of the most popular and well-loved yuletide films of the last decade. Why? It’s hard to say, honestly.
Is it the charming characters, like Bill Nighy’s aging rocker and Colin Firth’s lovestruck writer? Is it the big set pieces; Hugh Grant dancing through 10 Downing Street, or Liam Neeson’s stepson running through the airport? Is it the quieter moments, like Emma Thompson crying on Christmas Eve or Neeson’s funeral speech?
Personally, I think it’s because Curtis stuffs the film with all of these elements and about a hundred more, meaning there’s something for literally everybody.
Whatever the reason, Love Actually has been added to the canon of beloved Christmas favourites. Initially, I thought of reviewing the film, but everyone knows and has an opinion of the film, love or -hate. Instead, after re-watching the film and realising just how many characters and stories there are (no wonder it runs to an epic 136 minutes), I’ve decided to create the ultimate countdown; ranking each Love Actually plot strand, from worst to best. It’s a tough, closely-fought contest, given I actually dislike many, many elements of the film, but after much deliberation, here is my ranking of the various plot strands of Love Actually.
Colin and the American girls
Ugh. By far the worst part of Love Actually, Colin’s journey to America (because English girls are stuck-up and American girls love English accents) reads like a nerdy teenage boy’s ultimate fantasy. Perhaps the unfunny, misogynistic material could work in a better performer’s hands, but Curtis overestimates the appeal of Kris Marshall, a man who makes for a convincing sex pest but not a convincing sex symbol. Landing in America, Colin instantly falls in with a trio of drop dead gorgeous women (including future Betty Draper January Jones) and has soon bedded all three, plus flatmate Shannon Elizabeth. Colin’s fairly pointless strand is meant to be a bit of fun, but it ultimately leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Why is the idea that even the most unappealing British men can go over to America and instantly bag supermodels funny? Am I missing something? Whatever the intention, Colin is a hideously crass and irritating character, and his plot strand can only appeal to teenage boys, and nobody else.
Sarah and Karl
What is up with Sarah’s plot strand? Sure, Love Actually has a few downer moments, but what on Earth possessed Curtis to write a story as abominably depressing as this, and then toss it into a light-hearted family affair? Sarah, adorably played by Laura Linney, is an office worker with a desperate crush on Karl (Rodrigo Santoro, so bland she may as well be in love with the office wallpaper). After finally getting him back to her flat, she is interrupted by calls from her mentally ill brother. And… that’s it. Did Richard Curtis accidentally delete a page? I can live without a happy ending, even in soapy feel-good bollocks like this, but Sarah’s story ends halfway through the film when she sees her brother in hospital. Bafflingly unhappily, this plot strand is a clunky fit with the rest of the film, and not even Linney’s great performance can save it.
Mark, Juliet and Peter
A divisive one, this. Some people find Andrew Lincoln’s silent wooing of best mate Chiwetel Ejiofor’s wife Keira Knightley to be romantic and charming. I don’t. I think the entire plot strand is really creepy and dickish. It starts well enough, with Lincoln surprising the couple at their wedding with a brass band playing ‘All You Need Is Love’. Cheesy, but fun. Where the plot strand tumbles into the depths of darkness is when Juliet watches Mark’s wedding footage to find he has filmed nothing but terrifying close-ups of her big, pouty face. I saw this scene back in 1960 when it was called Peeping Tom; that film was disturbing, and so is big scary stalker Mark. The story culminates with Mark standing on Peter and Juliet’s porch, holding placards professing his undying love for Knightley. Though this is, again, weird behaviour from someone who didn’t initially seem deranged, it’s at least fairly harmless, and the story ends with Mark walking off, alone into the night. Oh wait. No, it doesn’t. It ends with Knightley snogging her husband’s best friend. How Christmassy.
Jamie and Aurelia
Is it a controversial choice to place Colin Firth’s bumbling writer so low? Maybe, but this plot strand is only half good. After being jilted by his cheating girlfriend, Jamie moves to France and quickly falls in love with Portuguese housemaid Aurelia (Lucia Moniz, reasonably adorable). Jamie and Aurelia’s tentative romance, hampered by the language barrier and a Jane Austen-esque dive in a lake is quite sweet, and Firth’s performance is as good as always. Unfortunately, Curtis can’t resist ruining the subtle relationship with a stupid, romantic comedy climax as Firth travels through the streets of Portugal, followed by bumbling village folk and Aurelia’s unfunny family, to give a long romantic monologue and proposal(followed, of course, by wild applause). Cliché can work occasionally, but this is just irritating, and the deliberately bad translations and “hilarious” jokes from Aurelia’s sister topple the whole thing.
John and Judy
So quiet and subtle you might barely even notice this plot strand on first watch, John and Judy are by far the most likable and cute characters in Love Actually. Played by Martin Freeman and Joanna Page, John and Judy are body doubles who spend their working lives simulating sex with each other, but struggle to overcome shyness when it comes to actual dating. Not as laugh out loud as some plot strands, but certainly more romantic and heart-warming than most. If only Curtis had devoted them some more screen time, they’d be much higher on the list.
David and Natalie
If there’s one thing Love Actually is remembered for, it’s Hugh Grant as the Prime Minister, dancing through the halls of 10 Downing Street to Girls Aloud. What most people forget is that Grant actually has a plot on top of that. Though it seems somewhat unbelievable that a man as charming as Grant would become a politician, he gives an enjoyable if familiar comedy performance, awkwardly flirting with tea girl Martine McCutcheon (isn’t it strange to think in 2015 that ten years ago, Martin McCutcheon was one of the top billings in a box office smash?). McCutcheon is enjoyable ditzy, and there’s a great cameo from Billy Bob Thornton as the slimy President (which leads to another great scene, Grant summing up everything good about Great Britain). There are plenty of laughs, and it certainly earns points for a few properly romantic moments, but it quickly loses them with a vomit-inducing ending involving the two being caught on-stage at a nativity play (leading to a presumably depressing end in which PM Grant is slated as a pervert in the press).
Harry and Karen
Unlike Sarah’s plot strand, Harry and Karen is a sad, unhappy story that works, mostly because it actually affords its characters a real conclusion. Emma Thompson breaks hearts all across the world as Karen, a fun housewife well aware that husband Harry, played by a particularly loathsome Alan Rickman, is probably having an affair with his secretary. One of the best scenes in the film involves a long shot of Emma Thompson quietly retreating to the bedroom to cry on Christmas Eve; it’s so subtly filmed, so quiet and graceful, I’m not entirely convinced Richard Curtis filmed it. Rickman is quite good in his role but Thompson might give the best performance in the entire film, dignified and feisty until the end. Though I’m always impressed by how morally ambiguous the end of their plot strand is, it’s somewhat hard to believe Karen would put up with her husband, especially when he looks like a Spitting Image puppet of Julien Clary.
Daniel and Sam
Even the most cynical of Scrooges must have their cockles warmed by Liam Neeson’s lovely performance as a widow trying to help his stepson (future Game of Thrones cast member Thomas Sangster) win over the most popular girl in school. Sangster is a little precocious, but he’s plenty charismatic and has a winning chemistry with Neeson. I’ve always found the climax, with Sam running through an airport after crush Joanna, really stupid (in a post 9/11 airport, shouldn’t the scene end with Sam and Daniel being mercilessly battered by airport security?), but unlike Jamie’s walk through Portugal, the airport scene is short and funny enough to be enjoyable. Packing in plenty of laughs (Daniel and Sam re-enacting Titanic) and some real emotion (Daniel’s funeral monologue), Daniel and Sam’s plot strand is the one most guaranteed to give you a smile.
My favourite plot strand in Love Actually, Billy Mack’s story is one of the greatest ever displays of the fine character of Bill Nighy, who won a BAFTA for his performance as the aging rocker hoping for one last Christmas number one for him and his long suffering manager (the very amusing Gregor Fisher). Most of his plot is focused on laughs, and he delivers in every single scene, whether insulting his own song (a hilariously bad re-do of Love Is All Around) on live radio or writing an offensive message on live TV (to the nervous reaction of a fresh faced “Ant or Dec”). If Billy Mack had nothing to offer but laughs, it’d still be a winner, but it’s the restrained climax of his plot strand that really cements it as the best. Returning to his manager’s lonely flat after a brief trip to Elton John’s house, Mack admits that manager Joe is his best friend and he wants nothing more than to spend Christmas with him. It’s heart-warming without feeling the least bit cheesy, and Nighy’s charismatic performance is top notch. If there’s one reason to watch Love Actually, it’s the legend that is Billy Mack.
As cheesy, cliché, occasionally unfunny, and often bloody stupid Love Actually is, there’s no denying the fact that Richard Curtis understands what the masses want. The comedy is broad but it often gets a laugh. The romance is the sickliest imaginable but plenty of people find the film genuinely touching (and there are a few nice moments to be found). Perhaps with a less talented cast, the film would crash and burn (see; every Gary Marshall movie), but Curtis managed to line up one of the greatest British ensemble casts ever, and just about everybody delivers.
When his jokes bomb, they bomb hard (Colin’s entire plot strand), and when his drama isn’t genuine, it just feels awkward (Sarah’s very serious family problems), but just occasionally, Love Actually merges the genuinely romantic, the emotionally touching, and the bloody hilarious to produce something genuinely brilliant. It doesn’t matter if Love Actually is your favourite film or the guiltiest of guilty pleasures; everybody enjoys the film, whether they want to or not.
By Harry Ford
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- Tagged: alan rickman, andrew lincoln, BAFTA, bill nighy, chiwetel ejiofor, colin firth, creepy, depressing, emma thompson, funny, hugh grant, january jones, keira knightley, kris marshall, laura linney, liam neeson, love actually, martin freeman, ranking, richard curtis, romantic comedy, thomas sangster, unfunny