Fourteen winters ago I spent three weeks in Durban doing a show curated and hosted by global comedy sensation Russell Peters called “India’s Kings of Comedy”. I was the token gay one trying to make a connection with an audience more used to alpha male posturing. It was a fascinating three weeks in that I experienced hippos and crocodiles in the wild, racially segregated nightlife, and the Richard Curtis rom com Love Actually.
I don’t usually hate a visit to the cinema, because I don’t take many chances. I hated Love Actually. Yes it was beautifully made, had a great soundtrack, and a cast to die for. The quiet underplayed majesty of Emma Thompson is still a thing of wonder. But in my opinion the overambition of Curtis, his desire to be Altman, floundered badly.
At the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe, my first solo show was devoted to explaining what I disliked about the film. Amazingly, despite an overheated room in the glamorous 2245 time slot, nobody came. The Stage called me “smug”, getting me prepared for the first six years of being a Chaser on Twitter. The Scotsman went harsher with “irritating”. One thing was for sure, I lost the battle.
Thirteen years later, it is clear that I lost the war. Love Actually has inveigled its way into the affections of mainstream Britain where it is considered “feelgood”. Certainly when Laura Linney loses her man because of the interruptions of her brother with mental health issues, I have rarely felt more full of Christmas cheer. People I know, adore and respect love this film and cannot fathom the occasional opprobrium. I will try today to explain, because I am procrastinating on Christmas shopping. I am aware that someone, somewhere has done the definitive sassy take. This is my milder version.
- For the opening monologue to invoke the memory of the victims of 9/11 was a risk. It puts a lot of pressure on the rest of the film be be a fitting tribute, rather than a film where Kris Marshall has an orgy with the first cartoonishly hot women he meets in US. It suggests an awareness of a post terrorism world that is curiously absent when Liam Neeson’s son is sprinting past those jobsworth curmudgeons, airport security. Still, he’s white so clearly he can do what he likes.
2. Post Notting Hill, Curtis finds black actors. None of their roles have any bearing on the plot whatsoever. Most damningly he casts Chiwetel Ejiofor as the husband of Keira Knightley and reduces one of the greatest actors of his generation to irrelevance.
3. The plotting falls apart. At one point porn doubles Freeman and Page kiss each other on Christmas Eve, wish each other a Merry Christmas. Then later they are sat together at the school concert on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve when schoolkids are at home with their family. My favourite is Neeson telling a taxi driver “Heathrow Airport please, I know a short cut”. When they get to Heathrow the kid’s potential paramour is about to board the plane. Great short cut.
4. The fat jibes at the expense of beautiful, healthy Martine McCutcheon are appalling. The ones at the expense of Colin Firth’s potential Portugese sister-in-law are unforgivably crass. “Shut up miss dunkin donut 2003” Feelgood. Merry Christmas.
5. The film is meant to be a paean to love. Kriss Marshall has an orgy, Alan Rickman plans an affair with the first younger hotter colleague he meets, a kid stops mourning his Mum within weeks because he fancies a schoolmate he has never spoken to. Colin Firth’s missus cheats on him with his brother, he reacts by proposing to a woman he knows nothing about.
6. Egg/Rick Grimes. He hires a choir to interrupt his best mate’s wedding, he videos Keira Knightley obsessively. He feels the need to tell her the depth of his feelings. Somehow this behaviour is normalised.
The film is meant to be a multilayered look at love, and yet is driven almost entirely by the sexual desires of white heterosexual men. It is meant to be Christmassy and yet contains the biggest Christmas lie of all.
In one fell swoop this card demolishes any idea that the film has any understanding about Christmas. At Christmas, lies are the glue to keep families together.
In the 14 years since this film, I have mellowed a little on account of the fact the film’s ambition and cast are to be applauded. My anger is not with the film but with the intelligent friends I have who can’t seem to see that the film is a cruel, superficial, misogynist mess with very little to say about love, and even less about Christmas. I cheerfully accept however, that I lost the war.