What is it about Love Actually? Richard Curtis’s ensemble Yuletide schmaltz-fest came out 16 years ago, and yet whether you adore it or despise it – for this has never been a film to provoke milquetoast emotions – you can’t deny that it remains a cultural touchstone.
The Christmas-centric plot facilitates the film’s annual exhumation by the sort of earmuff-sporting crowd who get excited about the switch to red Styrofoam cups in high street coffee chains, duly followed by its summary dissection by a bunch of misanthropic pseudo-nihilist killjoys whose concept of festive filmic fun is limited to watching the snowy bits in Andrei Rublev. No one comes out of this grudge match well. As I read on a desk once, the darkest parts of hell are reserved for those who, in times of moral conflict, maintain their neutrality (it was attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche, but it seems it’s actually Dan Brown).
Surely, you are thinking, it’s just a Christmas movie? You are wrong. It isn’t just a Christmas movie. It is the Christmas movie that devours all other Christmas movies. No longer can it be merely enjoyed for what it is – a couple of hours of well-meaning, gently funny sentimental gubbins with an all-star cast. Love Actually has become the transitional object for a generation of cultural commentators, the site of a thousand unconscious projections, the Lacanian mirror stage of pop-culture journalism. Love Actually “killed the romcom”, it’s “a powerful excoriation of white, male hegemony and the terrible things men do as a result”, its central moral lesson is “the less a woman talks, the more lovable she is”, and it’s set in a “nightmarish Ukip ethnostate”. It also features 27 turtlenecks.
Love Actually has many things wrong with it. They were memorably and infamously chronicled in a 2013 summary by Lindy West, and though that very specific colloquial stylistic register of hyperbolic rage redolent of the early-2010s internet has not aged well, she did gift us the term “cock-blocktopus”, and for that I am grateful.
In many cases, West was right: there’s the fat jokes, the sexual harassment, the lack of female dialogue, the normalisation of stalking: all these things are objectionable. To these, I add my own questions, which include: what kind of spanner doesn’t back up their novel? And: why is Laura Linney not allowed to have both a brother with mental health issues as well as the occasional good lay with a muscular colleague?
I was 16 when I saw the film for the first time and completely internalised the notion that I could not have both an autistic brother and a meaningful relationship, instead choosing to embark on a series of hollow flings with unsuitable … listen, therapy is expensive.
My most hated moment, however, has to be the part where Hugh Grant, as the prime minister, looks up at a portrait of Thatcher and calls her a “saucy minx”. Every time I see that part of the film, I want to vomit, not only because it constitutes an entirely unacceptable cosy rehabilitation of that woman, but because, well, could Grant be any more of a Lib Dem?
That’s what it comes down to, ultimately: politics. The Love Actually wars are really a proxy conflict symbolic of the divided Britain we inhabit today. The film itself is a postmodern ironic commentary on the hubris of the Blair years. Hear me out, and then put me in Pseuds Corner if you must: the scene is London, 2003. Everyone is in a palatial flat, a good-looking neoliberal is in charge, and everyone loves him. The financial crisis is yet to hit, Laura Linney’s brother has a care plan, and Colin Firth can easily import a Portuguese wife from France without having to worry about the EU settlement scheme.
We’re in a post-feminist world where sexual harassment is merely a plot point (Harvey Weinstein was, that year, co-producing My Boss’s Daughter starring Tara Reid and Ashton Kutcher, a film featuring the immortal line: “I was just checking these girls for breast cancer”). Furthermore, in a fantasy of national independence predicated on the Bush-Blair relationship, Britain stands up to America, though not, unfortunately, because of its slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis, but because Billy Bob Thornton got a bit too close to the tea lady the PM fancies, aka Natalie, a human woman, or, as he has it in his famous speech, a “thing”.
In other words, Love Actually is a paean to centrism, and that’s why people either love it or hate it. It’s Blairite Britain, sponsored by John Lewis. It features an upwardly mobile, largely white cast of comfortable wealth and bourgeois values falling in and out of love with one another. It was neither a vision of what Britain was nor really what it could ever have been; ultimately, it is a fantasy that vanished with the first financial crash.
And who, in some ways, doesn’t miss that fantasy – the dream that politics could be working so well for everyone that a film in which the prime minister is a central character need not even be political? All that he has to do is just have a little dance around his gaff and snog the woman he had sacked for being too hot to be around. Simpler times, before Brexit, before Boris Johnson, before anyone jumping a gate at an airport would immediately be shot in the head, before the 2019 election campaign became known as The Muppet Christmas Carol.
So this year, in this bleak electoral midwinter of our discount tents – those canvas dwellings that line our streets because our broken politics cannot look after the people who need help the most – forgive your mum, your uncle Bob, or your nan, for having a little chuckle at Love Actually, for they need a bit of comfort and joy. We all do. Besides, Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson are fantastic.
• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist