LOVE, ACTUALLY takes upon itself the daunting task of presenting to us love in all its manifestations. Theres the fairy tale, the tragedy, the farce, the friendships and the betrayals all rolled up into a set of interwoven tales that charm but never pander, giving us the bitter with the sweet, the whimsy with the anguish.
The season is Christmas, five week from, to be precise, a sparkly time of year and one, according to several characters, that is set aside as the time for telling the truth. In this case its about love, and the telling isn’t always deliberate. Our players are a diverse cross-section of the romance merry-go-round: newlyweds Keira Knightly and Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose best friend always has their best interests at heart, a lovelorn American (Laura Linney) madly, if silently, in love with a co-worker to the general interest of everyone in her office, including the object of her affection (Rodrigo Santoro).
Her boss (Alan Rickman) is a snarky Brit with a gooey center and a fabulous wife (Emma Thompson who brings heart and her innate wit to the part). Theres also his secretary (Heike Makatsch), who may or may not be offering to wreak amorous havoc with which he may or may not be intrigued. Another secretary (Joanna Page) is wreaking another sort of havoc with Englands dishy new Prime Minister (Hugh Grant), who can’t quite get over his attraction or the impossibility of the relationship. Meanwhile, hangdog hunk (Colin Firth at his most haplessly appealing) is wearing his heart on his sleeve now that his girlfriend has ripped it from his chest and stomped all over it. On the rebound, he falls for a woman (Lucia Moniz) who doesn’t speak English and, naturally, he doesn’t speak her language. A recent widower (Liam Neeson) is suffering through the first Christmas without the love of his life, and trying to cope with the emotional withdrawal of his step-son (a preternaturally mature Thomas Sangster).
I know, that seems like a whole lot to keep track of, but the intelligent and witty script by first-time director Richard Curtis (NOTTING HILL, FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, The Blackadder series) hums along nicely, neatly dovetailing most of the characters, some with chance meetings, others with surprising connections that tweak our expectations. Sure, it’s a gimmick, but it’s done with grace and that undercuts the contrivance. Also graceful is how Curtis equally captures the magic of a slow dance and the heartbreak of surrendering to the hopelessness of a situation. He hits all the right emotional notes as his lovers dare everything, or plan to, with no guarantee of success.
The ensemble cast is sterling silver. With a minimum of screen time, they each distill their characters essence with an economy that lacks nothing in depth. Grant rocking out at 10 Downing only to be discovered by one of his starchier underlings may be a scooch precious, but Firth and Moniz, speaking mutually unintelligible languages, and yet still having the same conversation speaks mightily about the power of attraction and harmony of soul mates.
The supporting stories complement the main action. Bill Nighy offers a tart counterpoint to all the sentiment as an ex-heroine addict trying to revive his rock career with a cheesy Christmas song that he refuses to promote in the traditional sense. Billy Bob Thornton does a steely turn as the President of the United States who inadvertently gives Grant’s character some backbone. Crony Rowan Atkinson punctures and later promotes an impulse with a textbook study in anal-retentiveness. And there is an unexpectedly engaging running joke about a pair of stand-ins simulating sex on a movie set while engaging in a tentative, shy courtship that contrasts nicely with the saga of Colin (Kris Marshall), who dreams of flying to America, Minnesota to be precise, in order to finally get laid.
LOVE, ACTUALLY is a serious comedy that does not, in the final analysis, present us with a cotton candy landscape where troubles melt like lemon drops high above the chimney tops. Hearts break, and sometimes just taking a chance on love has to be enough. As the voice-over by Grant tells us at the very start, love may be all around, but it is not always dignified or pretty. To which I will add, in this film, it’s merely splendid.