“Let’s go get the s**t kicked out of us by love.”
It’s hard for me to accept that Love Actually is really 20 years old already. I remember being a projectionist when this came out and splicing the film together back when movies were actually shown on film. When I first saw the film, it was after hours in the movie theater, and we had to screen the movies the day before release to make sure it was put together properly, and I was with my girlfriend at the time, so it was just us in the auditorium, and from that moment on I was in love with this film. I’ve seen the film well over a dozen times through different phases of my life, and each experience it hits a little differently, but I still come away from this film feeling a bit schmaltzy and in the Christmas spirit. For those of you who have missed out on this classic and are wondering just what is so great about this sentimental British love fest, the movie is written and directed by Richard Curtis; this would be his first time directing, but he had previously made a name for himself after writing Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones Diary. These were a trio of films that American audiences were ravenous about and basically set up Love Actually to become an instant success, but I don’t think anyone was ready for just how charming and heartwarming this film would actually turn out to be.
The film is about several different couples and individuals coping with love and their relationships in their own way. There’s Billy Mack (Bill Nighy), a has-been rock star trying to stay relevant by releasing a Christmas song (a tune that is a nice wink and a nod to Four Weddings and a Funeral) and his working relationship and friendship with his longtime manager, Joe (Gregor Fisher). Hugh Grant plays the newly seated Prime Minister who has feelings for his assistant, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). Jamie (Colin Firth) discovers his wife is having an affair, and he goes out to the countryside to work on his novel and develops a crush on his housekeeper, who speaks another language, but despite their language barrier love blossoms between them. There’s Karen (Emma Thompson) and her husband, Harry (Alan Rickman) who is being tempted by a seductress at work. Then there is a pre-The Walking Dead Andrew Lincoln playing Mark, who is madly in love with his best friend’s wife, Juliet (Kiera Knightley), and to close out the major stories we see unfold, there’s Daniel (Liam Neeson) grieving over his recently deceased wife while helping his stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster) navigate the perils of finding his first love. There are several other characters, and just about all their stories overlap, and you’d think it might be confusing with so many characters, but Richard Curtis navigates us through these stories so well that by the end you feel these characters are like close friends you’ve spent time with.
For me the storyline that I’ve enjoyed the most since day one and all these viewings later is between Daniel and Sam. This is before Neeson was doing his old-man-revenge films, and he is just so fun to watch as he bonds with his stepson. Then there is Sangster, who manages to hold his own with Neeson in scenes that range from depressing, to charming, to a confection of sweetness as the film reaches its final act and we see Sam come finally come face to face with his true love. Oh, and as for that third act sequence, I’m not going to spoil anything, but it is simply one of my all-time favorite feel-good moments in cinema.
This is a movie filled with iconic moments. Some are heartbreaking, but for the most part most of these iconic moments are heartwarming, the kind that are so sweet that you just wish that real life could always work out so well. Hugh Grant is ridiculously charming, and this is arguably his peak performance in my opinion. From his epic dance routine to the moment he realizes his feelings for Natalie, he seems to be having fun in this role, and it comes through the screen. As for having fun, Billy Mack is one of the most fun characters in this film. He’s rude, he’s crude, and every time he comes on screen Bill Nighy just lights up the screen in a loveable, obnoxious way.
The film doesn’t throw any twists at the audience, and we all pretty much know where these stories are going to go, though I’ll admit one did surprise me, but it was a reminder that sometimes getting what you want isn’t always a good thing and won’t always work out how you want. As much as the film can over-romanticize love, there is an authenticity to it that when even when it goes a bit over the top, we can accept it, because it’s how we want love to actually be.
Over the years the film has received a bit of backlash for how it treats the character of Natalie with a lot of fat shaming comments. Normally I’d be like let’s put the pitchforks down, no need to burn a 20-year-old film, but this is something that did always bother me, because I always thought that the character was charming and that McCutcheon was beautiful. If anything I would have expected more people to be upset about the age difference between Knightley and her onscreen husband Chiwetel Ejiofor, but I’ll just ignore that for now. Despite all this, I still love and adore this film, and I try to watch it any chance I get for the holidays.
It’s a shame we don’t get films like this anymore. There’s innocence to this film that we just don’t get to see on the screen these days. It’s as though Hollywood has grown cynical of love. This is what happens when you have a beautifully crafted script and a talented cast. The direction was simple. Curtis seemed to have enough confidence in his script and cast that he just let the camera capture the chemistry that unfolded. I don’t think this can be duplicated. Everything aligned just right for this film to happen, and it’s what makes everything we see on the screen so magical. It’s a holiday classic for a reason just like Elf, Christmas Vacation, Home Alone … Love Actually is that cinematic gift that keeps on giving.
Love Actually is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1. The ultra-high-definition image presentation is arrived at with an HEVC codec with a very disappointing bitrate that often hangs in the area of 20-25 mbps, never getting out of the 40’s. This is barely good for a Blu-ray and is statistically at the very bottom for a UHD Blu-ray. I know what you’re thinking. It’s a rom-com, and it’s not like the image presentation is there to win any awards. True enough, but consider: The film was shot on 35mm, so is native 4K from the start. There is also the problem of crushed film grain that is either severely crushed turning into something akin of compression artifact here, or just digital noise. HDR manages to save some of the day by making sure you get some nice brilliant colors, at least. There’s above average black levels, but not by much. What you miss here is some of that detail, texture, and a bit of depth that you should be expecting from a UHD presentation. It’s likely not going to distract from your appreciation of the film. Fair enough. But then just buy the Blu-ray and let it stop at that … except the earlier Blu-ray appears to be a better transfer. This is just word of mouth, but apparently the earlier release does a better job of handling film grain.
The Dolby Atmos audio presentation defaults to 7.1. Here you’re in a better spot, except it’s still not likely much of an improvement from the Blu-ray. You will find some notable subtle sub that fattens the dialog a bit. The source music is a huge part of the audio presentation, and it comes through with crystal clarity. It’s not an overly aggressive surround mix, and that’s entirely appropriate. You get just enough ear candy in the surrounds to help place you properly in the film’s environment.
The Storytellers (9:58) This was with the original DVD release that discusses how the story came to be and includes interviews with the cast and crew.
The Music of Love Actually: (1:58) Richard Curtis explains the use of the music by Joni Mitchell in the film.
Deleted Scenes with Introduction by Writer and Director Richard Curtis: (37:16) There’s about nine “scenes” here that were removed from the film. Some are actually entire sequences removed from the film. Just about all of these I would have left in, and at some point I hope we’ll get an extended cut with all these moments included. The only one I was glad to see gone is an extended take of Sam at the airport … it’s one of my favorite moments but this extended version has him doing all sorts of gymnastics to avoid the cops, and it is a bit cheesy. My favorite scene has Karen seeing the headmistress at her son’s school about what his “Christmas wish” would be. It’s an amusing moment that would have been a great addition to the film.
Music Videos: There are two music videos, “The Trouble With Love Is” by Kelly Clarkson and “Christmas Is All Around” by Billy Mack.
This film is a modern holiday classic in my eyes. This is one of the few movies I feel is a must-watch, and if someone doesn’t like this film, I seriously have to judge their taste and their emotional well-being. This holds up from the first viewing even up to seeing it well into the double digits. This is a holiday mainstay in my household, and to quote Mark, “To me, you are perfect.”
Parts of this review were written by Gino Sassani.