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Love Actually: cheesy rom-com, or comment on life in a post-9/11 world?

The holiday season means a lot of different things to different people. We explore the Christmas season from a pop culture point of view.

Love Actually is commonly seen as the quintessential feel-good holiday movie of the 2000s. It stars every British actor you know (Bill Nighy, Colin Firth, Martin Freeman, Alan Rickman, just to name a few) and consists of a dozen love stories in between, both fluffy and tragic ones. It is often portrayed as a fun movie beloved by many, or perhaps an inane, nauseating cheesefest with imperfect depictions of love (Andrew Lincoln’s Mark behaves more like a creepy stalker, for instance). It is also the ensemble comedy that led to a couple of insipid Hollywood knockoffs consisting of a specific holiday and various romantic entanglements (see: Valentine’s Day and New Years’ Eve).

While it is easy to dismiss Love Actually as a silly, light-hearted rom-com, writer Richard Curtis crafts a script that situates the film as a commentary on the post 9/11 world.

Love Actually opens and closes with a montage of returning passengers hugging and kissing their loved ones in airports. In the film’s prologue, the affable Hugh Grant provides voiceover, “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere.”

He deliberately refers to the 9/11 attacks: “When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge — they were all messages of love.”

It does possess a certain mushy banality, but Love Actually was filmed a year after 9/11, and released just two years after the terrorist attacks. In 2003, alluding to the 9/11 attacks in popular culture was still rarely done, but Love Actually’s reference was not necessarily tactless. In a world still raw with the memory of 9/11, Curtis boldly attempts to present the film as a cinematic pick-me-up, sugarcoated in yuletide cheer and corny romances.

Curtis reiterates his first point chiefly in the final moments of the film — the airport can be a place for love and joy, not terror and fear. The concluding sequence features the cast at Heathrow, waiting for their loved ones to return, while porn star stand-ins Judy (Joanna Page) and John (Freeman) embark on their honeymoon.

Love Actually situates its climatic scene in an airport too: the adorable young Sam, played by the ageless Thomas Brodie-Sangster, runs through Heathrow to say goodbye to his crush, Joanna (Olivia Olson). It is a huge cliché and almost ludicrous to imagine. There are numerous movies with public declarations of love in an airport, and Curtis’s scene here is most certainly nostalgic. He situates a young boy performing an age-old act, alluding to how a younger generation can still experience a tradition belonging to a pre 9/11 age.

It might seem a tad bit dopey, but in 2003, being in an airport with new, strict security protocols could be seen as a reminder that the world was dangerous. In the past decade, we have become accustomed to constant reminders of abandoned bags and warnings of suspicious people, but in 2003, such regulations were new and, for some, fairly disturbing.

At that time, defying airport security was unheard of, and even today we carry a reluctant acceptance to only pack 100ml bottles of liquid in our carry-on luggage. Sam leaps through a metal gate and outruns Heathrow security just for a chance to declare his love for Joanna. The scene plays as foolish yet sentimental, but it also positions Love Actually as bringing back the dramatic cinematic airport runs in a post 9/11 world (see: Friends, Like Crazy).

Secondly, Curtis weighs into the then touchy subject of US-UK relations. The 9/11 attacks happened on American soil but it has been largely considered a worldwide event. In 2003, the US and UK were nine months into the Iraq War. Love Actually assesses Britain’s role in regards to living in a post 9/11 era. Quite obviously, there is a thinly veiled allusion to the Bush-Blair relationship, with Billy Bob Thornton as the American President and Grant as the British Prime Minster. Thornton’s President hits on the Prime Minister’s love interest Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), a possible suggestion to Clinton’s sneaky love affairs, while also emanating a Bush-like dumb arrogance in the midst of political negotiations. In a press conference, the President comments on his visit to Britain, “We got what we came for, and our special relationship is still very special”. The Prime Minister then embarks on a monologue while the music surges,

“I love that word ’relationship’. Covers all manner of sins, doesn’t it? I fear that this has become a bad relationship; a relationship based on the President taking exactly what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to, erm... Britain. We may be a small country, but we’re a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham’s right foot. David Beckham’s left foot, come to that. And a friend who bullies us is no longer a friend. And since bullies only respond to strength, from now onward I will be prepared to be much stronger. And the President should be prepared for that.”

It is notably cheesy, as Grant’s character is mainly referring to his frustration and disappointment at the President hitting on Natalie, rather than any political upset. However, it is also easy to notice how the scene clearly indicates the British resentment of Blair being Bush’s lapdog, and being dragged into an American war. Europe’s growing bitterness towards America during the Bush years is well reflected with the caricature of the Machiavellian American President too.

Lastly, there is the bumbling self-proclaimed God of Sex, Colin (Kris Marshall), who decides that he is on the wrong continent to get laid. He holds a naïve belief and proudly announces, “You know perfectly well that any bar anywhere in America contains ten girls more beautiful and more likely to have sex with me than the whole of the United Kingdom”. The America Colin’s alluding to seems to be from a bygone era. “Stateside I am Prince William without the weird family,” he remarks. “American girls would seriously dig me with my cute British accent.”

Upon arriving in a Wisconsin bar, Colin’s dream begins to come true. It is astonishing, ridiculous and somewhat repugnant at the same time. The girls he meet are actually named in the script as “Stacey – American Dreamgirl” (Ivana Milicevic), “Jeannie – American Angel” (January Jones) and “Carol-Anne – American Goddess” (Elisha Cuthbert). He even brings back Denise Richards home for his disbelieving friend. Surely, the hot, easy American blonde gimmick would quickly turn sour, but Love Actually gleefully sinks its teeth into this comically exaggerated stereotype. It portrays America not as a place of mourning, but as a return to its gallivanting ways, as crass as it might be.

Love Actually is far from the perfect rom-com, but Andrew DeYoung sums up Love Actually best: “Here’s a film that looked at the entire geopolitical situation and said, basically, ’Fuck you. The world doesn’t run on hate, it runs on love. We don’t want more wars. We want more silly rom-coms. In fact, we’re going to pack as many romantic plotlines as we can into a single film.’”

There is zero sense of irony in Love Actually (after all, 9/11 had ended irony), which means the film is putting itself out there: it risks the “how banal” comments and the rolled eyes whenever two characters kiss.

While Curtis has never been able to return to his comedic peak of well-loved TV series like Blackadder, Mr. Bean and The Vicar of Dibley, his string of successful rom-coms (Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Bridget Jones’ Diary) has led to his confident endeavour in producing Love Actually as a movie that truly captures the zeitgeist. Love Actually was also Curtis’s directorial debut, and possibly his last decent rom-com (About Time was barely tolerable).

Realistic depictions of romance take the backseat in Love Actually, but Curtis’s glossy, love-filled way out from the imminent doom of the post 9/11 world is greatly laudable and all the more heartwarming.

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