‘The film is a mess – I’ve always hated it’: How Love Actually ruined Christmas

Telegraph reporters
·6-min read
Bill Nighy as Billy Mack in Love Actually - Peter Mountain
Bill Nighy as Billy Mack in Love Actually - Peter Mountain

It regularly tops the nation’s favourite Christmas movie polls. It’s packed with some of the country’s most adored actors – Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Keira Knightley – all falling in love with each other in a winding series of interconnected stories, rolled out in scenes that have become iconic.

So why have I always hated Love Actually?

During lockdown, my publisher finally gave me the green light to explain and explore my problems with it in a book. And now, having examined the film afresh, do you know what? I’ve realised I was absolutely right. Here are just some of the reasons why Love Actually is a terrible film.

It doesn’t seem to understand Christmas

Perhaps the most famous scene in Love Actually is when Andrew Lincoln’s Mark turns up on the doorstep of Keira Knightley’s Juliet, to declare his love for her via an armful of hastily drawn flashcards. The reason Mark says he’s declaring his love to his best friend’s wife (classy) is because Christmas is supposedly the time when people are meant to tell the truth to one another.

Where writer-director Richard Curtis has come up with this from, I’m not sure. It’s certainly not something I’ve encountered as a tagline to any of my 40-plus Christmases on Earth. In fact, all I have found is evidence for the opposite. Christmas should be a time where people should keep their opinions to themselves, so as not to ruin Christmas.

It has a women problem

Love Actually, put simply, hates women. Be it the stalking of Keira Knightley; the continual fat-shaming of Martine McCutcheon; the ugly power dynamics of most of the trysts that pit powerful men against usually younger, less powerful women; the dominant notion that supermodels are the feminine ideal; or the fact that, in real life, Bill Nighy’s character, old rocker Billy Mack, would have undoubtedly had a knock on the door from Operation Yewtree – Love Actually is a homage not to love but to the objectification of women.

It has a skewed idea of love

Love Actually purports to be an exploration of all the different types of love, but is really only interested in eros, the Greek term for romantic sexual love, and a very puerile vision at that. There are moments of storge, or familial love, some traces of philia, or platonic love (although also much stronger examples of friends treating other friends very badly indeed), and, at a stretch, perhaps an example of xenia, the love shown when accepting a guest into your home, as seen when Colin travels to America to become a sex tourist.

We’ve had Harry all wrong

I’m not naturally a contrarian, but I can’t deny it’s a minority position: I feel sorry for Alan Rickman’s Harry. This much-maligned character, a lecherous adulterer with the half-closed eyes of a climaxing lizard, is cheating on Emma Thompson. Just, how could he? But I don’t think Harry’s heart is in it. In his affair with his secretary, Mia, we see the actions of a man going through the motions, part of a Reggie Perrin-style mid-life breakdown. His gift to Mia, an expensive necklace, takes all of two seconds to choose.

What he really wants is the old spark with the woman he married. His Christmas gift for her is not a superficial trinket, but a Joni Mitchell album – Both Sides Now – that is literally described in its sleeve notes as a series of tracks dedicated to the cycle of a relationship, from “initial flirtation” to “disillusionment” and ending in “acceptance”. It is Harry’s cry for help to his distant, acid-tongued wife. He is the movie’s most tragic figure. (Worth noting, I don’t take Harry for a saint; he does, after all, think he can get away with spending £16.99 on his wife at Christmas.)

Get the kid some therapy

It’s bad enough that Liam Neeson’s widow Daniel treats the death of his wife as if he’s written off a favourite car, but the way he attempts to deal with the grief of his stepson, 11-year-old Sam, to whom he is now sole guardian, takes dysfunctionality to new heights. He swears at him, gives him age-inappropriate advice, and enables an unhealthy obsession with a school crush.

We all know Neeson has the potential to be a great dad, particularly if you get kidnapped and need rescuing by a man with a very particular set of skills, but less so if you need comfort or understanding that the death of a parent at that age is the collapsing of an entire universe. I can’t help but feel Sam needs to talk to a qualified professional.

Liam Neeson and Thomas Brodie-Sangster in Love Actually - Peter Mountain
Liam Neeson and Thomas Brodie-Sangster in Love Actually - Peter Mountain

Christmas number ones are supposed to be fun

I’m not quite so naïve as to suggest the true spirit of Christmas is free of corporate cynicism, but Christmas number ones are important to people. Just look at recent campaigns to curtail the dominance of soulless X-Factor fodder in the top festive spot.

Threaded through Love Actually, however, is an openly cynical dud to end all openly cynical duds. Billy Mack’s hellish earworm seems an apt theme tune for the cynical mess of the movie. The repurposed Troggs song (“Love is All Around” becomes “Christmas is All Around”) is itself a rehash of the inescapable 1994 Wet Wet Wet hit from Curtis’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, and it weaves through Love Actually with all the style and finesse of a Rambo self-suture. Billy Mack, the singer of this glittery turd, has such contempt for his own song that it’s difficult not to speculate whether it acts as a metaphor for Curtis’s feelings toward his own movie. The song is a joke, as is the movie, and the joke is on us.

The film is a mess

Ostensibly split into a traditional five-act structure based on the five-week run-up to Christmas, this is where the sure-footing ends. Love Actually is a mess, a wobble-bottomed edifice of twisting plotlines, dead ends, discombobulating time shifts and unlikely character appearances. This is somewhat down to the first cut being three-and-a-half hours long, and Curtis swinging the axe pretty mercilessly to get it down to two-and-a-bit.

But the result sees some jaw-dropping moments, including the character of Tony apparently ducking out of a wedding to shoot a big-budget pornographic movie, and Emma Thompson advising Liam Neeson it’s time to get over his wife’s death on what apparently turns out to be the day before his wife’s funeral. Tough Love, actually.

How Love Actually Ruined Christmas (or Colourful Narcotics) by Gary Raymond (Parthian Books, £10) is out now​