December 7, 2006
Starring: Hugh Grant, Martine McCutcheon, Alan Rickman, Laura Linney, Bill Nighy, Gregor Fisher, Rory MacGregor, Colin Firth, Sienna Guillory, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Lulu Popplewell, Kris Marshall, Heike Makatsch, Martin Freeman, Joanna Page, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Andrew Lincoln, Keira Knightley, ,
Richard Curtis is a terrific writer of comedy – no question. He has had unmitigated success ranging from TV’s Blackadder through to global blockbuster hits like Four Weddings, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary. It’s not surprising that both Working Title Films and Universal Pictures (both companies who have earned millions on the back of Curtis’s brand of humour) clambered to let him lens one of his own scripts. The result is Love Actually, an ambitious piece of candyfloss that aims to tell around ten love stories over one Christmas period in London in two hours. Some of it works; the majority falls flat and is incredibly undernourished for a movie that runs for over two hours.
Curtis is no Robert Altman when it comes to sprawling ensemble pieces and, rather obviously, opts for utterly ridiculous set pieces and situations to win the audience over. Undoubtedly Love Actually will be a huge hit and at the screening I went too laughs and tears were plentiful so in a way it’s quite harsh to criticise the wafer thin plot and characterisation when Curtis clearly knows how to please a crowd. As a crowd pleaser Love Actually works; as a film with any real depth, substance or believability it fails.
Hugh Grant is the newly appointed Prime Minster who is introduced to his new staff and promptly falls for tea lady Natalie (Martine McCutcheon) a chirpy cockney with a penchant for swearing and saying things like ‘piss it’ (does anyone other than a Richard Curtis character ever actually say anything like that?). Emma Thompson is Karen, the Prime Minster’s sister, married to Harry (Alan Rickman) who is the boss of Sarah (Laura Linney). Daniel (Liam Neeson) is Karen and Harry’s best friend who’s recently lost his wife and is trying to nurture his step-son Sam (Thomas Sangster) who is in love with a girl from school. Harry is contemplating cheating on his wife with his new secretary Mia (Heike Makatsch) while trying to set Sarah up with the office hunk Karl (Rodrigo Santoro).
Meanwhile Juliet (Kiera Knightley) is marrying Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) whose best man Mark (Andrew Lincoln) is secretly in love with her. Jamie (Colin Firth) discovers his wife is cheating on him with his brother so promptly hightails it to France where he falls for his housemaid Aurelia (Lucia Moniz). Colin (Kris Marshall) is a crappy waiter who decides that the reason women don’t shag him in the UK is because his personality is far more suited to American women so takes himself off to Wisconsin finally, and best of all, aging rock dinosaur Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) is promoting his cover version of Wet Wet Wet’s Love Is All Around in a bid to win the Christmas number one.
And that’s not even all the plot threads that Curtis attempts to squeeze into his film. The feeling you get is that three or four great ideas were bandied about that he was either unable to stretch to feature length or knew both audiences and critics would never swallow (the plot strand involving Grant, McCutcheon and Billy Bob Thornton as the American President would not have survived the transition to full feature on the grounds of jaw dropping implausibility). I also get frustrated when scenes are added to movies for no other reason other than to showcase an actor’s particular trait. As good as Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson are, they both have scenes that have been deliberately tacked on to highlight their previous success in better films. Thompson comes of best as her scene is a dramatic piece that is relevant to her story; however Grant’s comic set piece, which sees him prancing around number 10 to the Pointer Sister’s Jump while cute serves no narrative purpose whatsoever other than to highlight that this PM is a bit of a hoot.
On the plus side the rest of the cast are pretty darn good especially Bill Nighy who practically steals the film with his jaded aging rocker determined to tell the truth. Also good are Laura Linney (somewhat short changed in the story stakes), Firth, Rickman and McCutcheon who survives her criminally underwritten part with an appealing turn that suggests she may well have a future as a leading lady.
I do see the point of making a film all about the greatness of love and how much we need this kind of optimism in the world and it’s not always a bad thing having your buttons pressed while watching something that is clearly intended as escapism. The problem is Curtis doesn’t just push the buttons he batters them with a sledgehammer dosed in saccharine.
This is by no means a wholly awful experience just underdeveloped and, ultimately, far too slight to really engage or convince. A couple of good belly laughs and some fine acting do not a good film make.