For 12 days leading up to Christmas, I will be reviewing 12 Christmas-themed films from across the many decades of film. These will not, however, be your ordinary movie reviews. These will be Social Impact Reviews, providing insight into the various ways several beloved films, cult classics, and new faves have potentially made an impact on viewers like you! My research (for a PhD in political science) looks at the impact of fictional, entertainment media on social, political, and policy attitudes. This set of holiday-themed reviews is my first foray into sharing my research with the public – you! And what better way to start than with holiday favorites?
For many years since it was released in 2003, Love, Actually has been at the heart of many a debate. And for every single one of those years, I politely declined entering those debates. This year, that silence ends. First, I think it’s important to point out that most of the stories interwoven in this movie fall into the camp of “exposing what is” rather than “exploring what could be.” The title itself claims the film will be about love – how it actually is. The grammarian in me wants to shout from the mountaintops that, “Hey! That comma matters!” So, when I hear people bluster about this or that when it comes to this film, I find it’s likely they’re either a) frustrated with the parts that seem fantastical or b) furious with the realities that lie in the real world.
True, it’s unlikely both Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lucia Moniz) learned enough of each other’s languages in the span of a couple weeks to hold an extended conversation. It’s also a bit fantastical they’d actually both fall in love so quickly to the point of wanting to get married within five weeks of meeting. However, it’s not entirely implausible. Jamie really only memorizes that one speech in Portuguese, and Aurelia knows some basic English to respond. As for falling in love so quickly, there are anecdotes of such occurrences in many cultures. This “fantastical” piece of the movie would serve as an anomaly, but I wouldn’t call it ridiculous or impossible. Their story serves as the “love at first sight” and the “love surpasses language” pieces of romantic love. This is one example, but there are several similar parts of the movie I’ve heard people get hung up on.
On the flip side, while it’s heartbreaking to watch Karen (Emma Thompson) open Harry’s (Alan Rickman) gift of a new Joni Mitchell CD when she knows he purchased a necklace, their story also serves as a realistic form of romantic love as it wanes. We may love to loathe Mia (Heike Makatsch) as the secretary seductress – more on this later – but that personality does exist in this world. And sometimes, she wins. We may feel creeped out by Mark’s (Andrew Lincoln) footage of Juliet (Kiera Knightly) on her wedding day to his best friend Peter (Chiwetel Ejiorfor), but guess what? Stalker types are out there, and affairs between spouses and best friends are rather stereotypical. You don’t have to like it, but the film merely exposes that it’s out there.
The things about this film that do concern me, with regard to social impact, have very little to do with other rants and reviews I’ve read over the years. Instead, I’m concerned by the anti-LBGT, fat phobic, and misogynist language sprinkled throughout the entire film. Some examples: Karen asks her husband Harry whether to gift their daughter’s friend a doll that “looks like a transvestite or the one that looks like a dominatrix.” Peter notes to his friend Mark that maybe they shouldn’t have picked up hookers on his stag night, to which Mark agrees and adds “especially since they turned out to be men.” Later, when Sarah (Laura Linney) questions Mark about his longing gaze toward Peter and Juliet, asking if maybe Mark loves Peter, Mark very firmly replies, “no, no, absolutely not.” When aging pop star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) leaves a big party at Elton John’s early to visit his manager Joe (Gregor Fisher) on Christmas, Joe jokingly wonders if 10 minutes at Elton’s has made Billy “gay as a maypole.”
Further, the film consistently uses “chubbiness” as a punchline. When asked about Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), for example, Annie (Nina Sosanya) inquires, “The chubby girl?” and clarifies her comment with, “I think there’s a sizeable ass there.” Natalie’s father calls her “Plumpy.” Billy Mack refers to Joe as “chubs” or “my fat manager.” Aurelia mentions her sister’s weight in a negative context, and her father calls her sister “Miss Dunkin’ Donut 2003.” These small quips are all clearly there for comedic effect, but at the expense of whom? Again, this language sprinkled throughout the film normalizes fat phobia and body shaming.
I do applaud the film for largely steering clear of sexual harassment and other typical misogynist traps. For example, in all three workplace romances where the male colleague is the boss, the female makes the first move – Natalie for the Prime Minister (Hugh Grant), Mia for Harry, and Aurelia for Jamie. When the male colleague makes the first move – in the case of Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) for Sarah and John (Martin Freeman) for Judy (Joanna Page) – the pair are of seemingly equal, or at least unrelated, footing in their workplace. However, the more fantastical (yet also, sadly, realistic) characters Billy Mack and Colin Frizzle (Kris Marshall) make extremely misogynist remarks, Billy Mack even claiming a fellow, female pop star to be terrible in bed during a live radio interview.
Normally, I would accept these as disgusting traits of two seriously flawed characters, but at least in Colin’s case, the writers take this a step further to also belittle American women as a whole as being gorgeous, dumb, and slutty. I fully support a woman’s choice to be promiscuous, and I largely refrain from using the word “slut” in a negative context, but this term appropriately represents the negative sentiment Colin’s particular story is designed to evoke. American and non-American films alike use this stereotype of American women far too regularly, often pitting it against the sweet, innocent everywoman. Neither of these stereotypes is helpful, and regularly showing only these versions of women not only shows a lack of imagination, but also normalizes the moral division of women into “good virgins/wives” or “bad sluts.” The depiction of Mia as a power-hungry seductress, for example, who seems to desire her boss for no other reason than to win his attention further solidifies this message.
I’m also saddened that even though the Brits generally do better than us Americans when it comes to diversity, there still isn’t a single person of color in the film who acts in a leading role. In Jamie’s story, Aurelia is his love interest, and her family and neighbors serve as comic relief. In Sarah’s story, the gorgeous, Latino Karl is her love interest. In Mark’s story, Peter is his Black best friend and the man standing between him and his love interest. In Daniel (Liam Neeson) and Sam’s (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) story, the young African American girl Joanna (Olivia Olson) is Sam’s love interest. Annie, a Black woman, is the Prime Minister’s right hand, and Tony (Abdul Salis), a Black man, is Colin’s friend and works on the set where John and Judy meet. It’s technically a diverse cast, but the implication is that people of color only prop up white stories. And that’s bullshit.
Other implied messages include: it’s okay for a man to cry but will probably make it difficult for him to date, schizophrenia is a serious mental disorder that can be extremely difficult both for the person affected and their families, pornography work is okay but sex work isn’t, American presidents are creeps, and if you become a pop star you get free drugs.
The primary explicit message of this film is that “love is all around,” and the main implicit message is that love can be overwhelming, beautiful, and complicated. Love isn’t good or bad, but people in love can do healthy and unhealthy things. Whether you like the film or wish it would just go away, I think that this message is rather an important one, especially at the holidays. The film has its problems, yes, but both the implicit and explicit messages may make it worth watching for many people and their loved ones. Final note: John and Judy are the best story. Don’t @ me.