How did a film full of death, betrayal, illness, and nudity become a Christmas classic? We — and writer-director Richard Curtis — ruminate on the movie's enduring appeal.
”If you thought Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Bridget Jones’s Diary were a load of sentimental rubbish, then you’re not going to like this.” So ran one suggested tagline for British writer and first-time director Richard Curtis’ Christmas-themed, Hugh Grant-starring romantic comedy Love Actually. Although the line was ultimately rejected, its real message could hardly be clearer: If you did like the three name-checked films (all of which Curtis either wrote or co-penned and also starred Grant), then you were going to actually love this collection of interlocking romantic tales.
In fact, moviegoers had a slightly different opinion when the film was released in November 2003. Love Actually received merely good-ish reviews — EW’s Owen Gleiberman deemed it ”as sweetly munchable as a Christmas cookie (and about as nourishing)” — and the movie’s $59 million domestic gross was about half that of Notting Hill. In the course of the past nine years, however, Love Actually has stealthily ascended into the pantheon of Great Christmas Movies, with Taylor Swift — who has repeatedly named it her favorite film — being only one soldier in its growing fan army. Moreover, the star-studded, multi-plotlined movie bequeathed to Hollywood a new template for romantic comedies; witness director Garry Marshall’s 2010 film Valentine’s Day (which featured Swift) and its 2011 successor, New Year’s Eve. ”I’m not unhappy about it,” Curtis says of the homages. ”But I would like to have received a postcard at some point from Garry Marshall.”
The cult of Love Actually (which is available on both DVD and Blu-ray) seems doubly remarkable given how bleak so much of it is. From Liam Neeson playing a grieving widower to Andrew Lincoln’s bordering-on-stalker obsession with Keira Knightley to Laura Linney caring for her violent, mentally troubled brother, this is a film that dwells as much in the dark as in the Christmas lights. Curtis, whose other writing credits include Mr. Bean and War Horse, claims to be ”delightfully mystified by its shelf life. But I think [the Christmas setting] helps.” He also credits the film’s ”great casting lady,” Mary Selway, and Four Weddings director Mike Newell, ”who taught me that casting is everything, so I spent a long, long time on that.” Certainly Love Actually is not short on memorable performances. Bill Nighy and Hugh Grant are damn near perfect as a louchely aging rocker and a frisky prime minister, respectively, while Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman are perfect as a couple whose marriage is threatened by the latter’s wandering eye. It is also worth mentioning that several of the cast members who weren’t famous in the U.S. when the movie was made — notably Lincoln (a.k.a. the hero of The Walking Dead) and January Jones, who plays one of the very welcoming Americans Kris Marshall’s character meets on his vacation — have since become stars.
For all its darkness, Curtis recalls writing the script when he was ”full of joy,” and the movie’s other trump card is its high quotient of gags, be they subtle or Mr. Bean-broad — as in the sequence when Rowan Atkinson himself performs an act of berserkly complicated gift-wrapping. Then there is the film’s array of happy (or, at the very least, happy-ish) endings, which, like a good Christmas cookie, leave the audience both satisfied and wanting more. And speaking of more … ”I have thought about a sequel,” teases Curtis. ”But I don’t think I’ll ever do it. It was enormously difficult, and we were lucky to get away with it — twice would be pushing my luck.”