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Celluloid Christmas: Holy Hollywood! "Love Actually"

The all-star cast of "Love Actually"

My 11th pick for the 12 Films of Christmas is a sprawling love story that can give you a migraine if you try to connect all its dots. “Love Actually” (sometimes styled “Love, Actually”) debuted in 2003. Its opening date in the U.S. was November 14, and it bowed to the British public a week later. It’s interesting to realize that in America, the reviews for this Richard Curtis film were mediocre. Whereas seven days later, the English press were gobsmacked by its brilliance. Over the past 15 years, the movie has attained a huge following worldwide, and it consistently ranks in American polls as a Christmas must-see.

Even though this is my number 11 film, I can’t say it’s one of my favorite holiday movies. I think it’s too long (136 minutes) and the number of different plots we’re following becomes heavy-handed. It boasts in-depth storylines that track actors as diverse as Laura Linney, Bill Nighy, Keira Knightley, Colin Firth, and Andrew Lincoln, years before "The Walking Dead." (In this movie, he plays the best man at a wedding who is unnaturally obsessed with the bride. He's not walking. Rather, he's stalking!) Think of "Love Actually" as a cinematic game of Jenga. If you lose focus for any stretch of time, all the interconnections, which are painfully tied together, will unfurl and the whole core of the movie will collapse. So, why, then, did I choose this Christmas flick?

I suppose the answer is four-fold. The first is that it came out in 2003, but it began its filming in 2002. It is one of the first Christmas movies—and particularly one with an international cast (British, American, French, Portuguese, German, etc.)—that debuted after 9/11. The horrors of that attack on the World Trade Center might have begun to fade for many people, but for those of us in New York on that day, it’s a devastation that will never diminish.

Hugh Grant brings his stammering charm to his role of the prime minister, seen here with Martine McCutcheon

The opening narration of “Love, Actually” is not afraid to address that terrifying day. Hugh Grant’s voiceover (he’s playing the prime minister of England) reminds the movie audience that the telephone messages left on 9/11 from the doomed airline passengers were all about love and not hate. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that life can end abruptly and without warning. None of those innocent fliers on September 11 expected such a horrific fate when they set out with the highest hopes. It’s in the same vein as Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Both the Garland song and the Curtis script acknowledge that not all of us will live to see another Christmas, but we should love each other during the time we have.

Beyond that sobering observation, “Love Actually” shies away from terrorism and its fallout. It does, though, mine different facets of love, and how sometimes a person can strike gold with a chosen love object. Other times, it’s more misery and sorrow, unrequited feelings and worship from afar. This is my second reason for picking this title. It admits that love isn’t just reserved for couples; it is an all-encompassing emotion.

Liam Neeson as a struggling stepfather with stepson, Thomas Sangster

Some of these vignettes focus on romantic love; others spotlight familial. Inspired by the arrivals at Heathrow Airport, Curtis, who wrote and directed the movie, cobbled together every component of what makes up love. To that end, he has a stepfather (Liam Neeson) struggling to build a bond with his stepson (Thomas Sangster) after the boy’s mother dies. Recently widowed, the Neeson character, Daniel, attempts to find common ground, and finds himself serving as a cupid for his young stepson’s budding affection for an American school chum.

There are also storylines that chronicle the first steps toward constructing a meaningful relationship. One of these pairings revolves around two stand-ins for movie stars during their onscreen sex scenes. This is rather raunchy for a Christmas movie, and it’s one of the reasons why I’ve never watched this film with my children. The two actors (Martin Freeman and Joanna Page) can gab all day while they step out of their clothing and simulate lovemaking. However, when they are all buttoned up in their jeans and cardigans, they find themselves socially confined. They have to learn to relate as two people who might be bundled under scarves and shirts, but who are willing to bare their souls. They’ve exposed their skin to one another, and now they are babystepping their way to exposing their psyches.

Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson, at a Christmas that won't remain very merry

My third reason for standing up for “Love Actually” is the heart-wrenching performance of Emma Thompson. I don’t know if Thompson has ever given a bad performance. She is blessed with the ability to do every kind of accent, conduct herself in every era and century, and believably eschew every type of character. Whether it’s a maid or an author, a socialite or a suffragette, Thompson can inhabit any part. In “Love Actually,” she plays a middle-aged wife and mother, Karen, who has the rug pulled out from beneath her. Living with her husband, Harry (Alan Rickman), Karen seems to have it all. Well, if not all, then enough. The husband and wife are not in the throes of passion, but their marriage appears to function as a well-oiled machine. They each know their duties and what is expected of them.

Emma Thompson's performance as a wife who realizes she's been wronged is heartbreaking.

The problem is, they aren’t machines. And while Karen has set aside her desires and lowered her expectations for happiness, hubby Harry hasn’t. He is beginning an affair with a secretary at his design agency, and his most important decisions this Christmas revolve around keeping his new mistress interested and his old wife in the dark. Through a series of mishaps and mistakes, Karen does learn of the other woman. It is Thompson’s realization, unguarded and happening beneath the Christmas tree, that elevates her to another stratosphere. Her portrayal of shock, gut-wrenching embarrassment, anger, pain, and devastation play out in a tour-de-force moment. Because it’s such a huge cast, and it has so many moving parts, Thompson’s screen time is limited. She devours it.

Bill Nighy provides laughs in "Love Actually" as a rocker reaching for another number one hit.

Finally, and you need the DVD or Blu-Ray for this, the commentary of “Love Actually” is one of the most laugh-out-loud discussions you’ll ever hear. It’s a Christmas treat to listen to Richard Curtis, Bill Nighy, and Thomas Sangster free-associate about the making of the movie. Then Hugh Grant joins them, apologizing for getting snarled in traffic. Once he arrives, he takes over the commentary with glib asides, witty observations, and some truly god-awful put-downs of fellow co-star Colin Firth. His nonstop patter is riotous and uproarious. It is a great way to underscore this film’s homage to all manner of love. Grant comes across as a snarky gentleman—the accent makes everything sound refined. After more than two hours of tenderness and occasional weeping, it’s good to have a commentary filled with nothing but belly laughs.

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