Christmas is right around the corner. And where there are gifts to wrap, lights to hang, and pies to bake, there is Love Actually playing on someone’s television screen. The beloved romantic comedy has become as traditional as gingerbread houses since its release in 2003.
Love Actually is a British holiday-themed rom-com directed by Richard Curtis. For the uninitiated to his work, Curtis also directed rom-coms like Nothing Hill and Bridget Jones’ Diary, so you know he has a knack for telling sentimental and romantic stories. True enough, Love Actually depicts love in all its tenderness, surprises, sacrifices, and heartbreaks. In other words, what love actually is like, and not the fairy tale romance we all dream of having.
Aside from the different types of love it portrays, a big part of the appeal of Love Actually is its ensemble cast. The film is seriously star-studded, with Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Kiera Knightley, Liam Neeson, and Colin Firth in it. And of course, what’s a Richard Curtis film with Hugh Grant in a leading role? Together, our London-based characters feature in the ten different love stories told in the movie that connect in some way.
Love As Told by Love Actually
The enduring popularity of Love Actually, which celebrated its 20th anniversary with a reunion special, isn’t at all surprising. At the time of its release, Richard Curtis was already an established storyteller of romantic stories, and the cast of talented actors was beloved on either side of the pond. Plus, everyone gets a little emotional on holidays, so a Christmas-themed rom-com was sure to be a hit.
But our collective nostalgia isn’t enough to hide the opinion that Love Actually is actually a pretty terrible movie—at least in the way it depicts love.
Sure, it highlights that enduring love isn’t just of the romantic kind, as with Prime Minister David (Grant) and Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), the 10 Downing Street staff he falls in love with. It could also be platonic love between close friends, like the friendship Karen (Thompson) and Daniel (Neeson) shared. Or love of the familial kind, like the kind of unconditional love Sarah (Laura Linney) had for her mentally ill brother. The love that no other kind of love trumps.
As much as I’d like to view Love Actually with a limited lens, it’s impossible with bigger storylines competing for your attention—especially since these are the ones that have some very awful things to say about love, whether they intended to or not.
Love Actually is Heteronormative
If we’re going by the rules that Love Actually portrayed, love is only for straight people. Of the ten stories woven into a somewhat cohesive narrative, all couples (or all people trying to be couples) were straight. There were no same-sex couples or even queer characters in the movie. Say what you will about cancel culture, but Love Actually would be completely unacceptable in the inclusive culture we’re trying to foster today.
But love isn’t just for couples of the opposite sex. Even Richard Curtis admitted to this outdated notion that Love Actually perpetuated. “My film is bound in some moments to feel out of date. The lack of diversity makes me feel uncomfortable and a bit stupid,” he says in the reunion special.
The really sad part is that they actually wrote a queer storyline into the script but decided to cut it later. Sure, the characters were meant to be minor but they would have added more color to Love Actually. Instead, we have a really heteronormative and, not to mention, mostly white portrayal of love. I don’t know about you but I’m pretty sure queer couples weren’t invented after the release of Love Actually.
Love Actually is Shallow and Unrealistic
One of the biggest plotlines of Love Actually is Jamie (Firth) hiding in his cottage after his girlfriend cheated on him. He hires a Portuguese housekeeper named Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz). After a few days of barely speaking to each other, since Aurelia didn’t know much English, Jamie falls madly in love with her.
In another part of England, Colin (Kris Marshall) plots to move to America because no English woman wants to be with him. His friend tells him no American woman will want him either because he isn’t rich or good-looking. But when he does arrive in Wisconsin, of all places in the US, he goes to a bar and immediately woos three attractive women with his irresistible English accent. And by the way, this is the entirety of his plotline!
Both of these Love Actually stories send a very clear message that looks are all that matter when it comes to love. Jamie develops an attraction to Aurelia after seeing her half-naked. He eventually asks her to marry him after speaking at most ten words of English between each other. Meanwhile, Colin was never shown to have any substance in the movie. Not that the American girls cared, as long as he had an endearing accent.
Love Actually is Manipulative
So many things are wrong with Love Actually but the most awful thing is how it normalized cheating and manipulation. Karen is married to Harry (Rickman), and they have a family together. It’s heavily implied that Harry cheats on Karen with his secretary, at least emotionally. When Karen finds out later in the film, the director’s wife later confirms in a tweet that they stay together. Harry—who was dancing flirtatiously with his secretary at a Christmas party his wife also attended, who bought really expensive jewelry for his secretary and a Joni Mitchell CD for his wife as gifts—never really faced the consequences of his actions.
As disappointing as that outcome is, no plotline is more confusing and awful than that of Juliet (Knightley) and Mark (Andrew Lincoln). The two aren’t in a relationship—in fact, Juliet just married Mark’s best friend Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor). At their wedding, Mark was assigned to take videos. When Juliet came to collect, she discovered that the only videos he took were of her. And we’re talking really creepy closeups of her face. “But you never talk to me,” Juliet says about his very obvious but confusing declaration of love.
His big gesture is the one that bothers me the most, mostly because audiences seem to really think of it as romantic. Mark knocks at Juliet’s and Peter’s shared home with pieces of cardboard he’s written on. With Peter innocently thinking carolers were at the door, Mark quietly professes his undying love for Juliet…and she runs after him later to give him a kiss on the lips. All while his best friend is sitting inside the home he just tried to wreck.
The worst part is that Juliet stays together with Peter. During the epilogue, the three of them arrive at Heathrow Airport together, which can only mean that Peter never found out about Mark’s love for Juliet or the kiss they shared. For all we know, the two of them engage in an affair behind Peter’s back. These stories in Love Actually romanticize cheating in the most horrible ways.
Love Actually is Male-centric
If you stop to look at the story as a whole, you’ll notice that not a lot of the women have any real agency. All the actions of love were told from the point of view of the men in the story, and the women were kind of just there as plot points.
For instance, Harry’s secretary Mia (Heike Makatsch) is just there to seduce him. We don’t learn anything about her other than that she’s an obstacle in his family life. Aurelia doesn’t even speak English, and we never learn if she actually really loves Jamie or not. Juliet—well, she’s truly the most horrible one for even entertaining Mark a few weeks after she marries his best friend. And let’s not even talk about the American women that Colin seduces.
The only hope I had was Sarah who is in love with a co-worker. They do try to get together but Sarah’s priorities are with her brother in the psychiatric hospital. It was depressing that the only woman in the movie who actually had any agency was made to choose between the two men she loved in very different ways. In the short sequel, Red Nose Day Actually, Laura Linney’s character at least gets justice, as Sarah is revealed to be married to a character played by Patrick Dempsey.
It’s been 20 years of Love Actually, and many rewatches later, I have come to find it problematic and not really the best choice for a holiday movie. It’s more devastating than endearing and not representative of what love actually should be. I’m not an expert but I know for sure that love isn’t exclusive to straight couples, manipulative and toxic, only concerned with appearances, or selfish and told from only one person’s side. Love Actually was fun two decades ago but it’s time to retire it as the unofficial holiday romantic comedy movie.