Director and screenwriter Richard Curtis may have recently been hailed by “Entertainment Weekly” as being the film world’s “master of the literary romantic comedy” (if movies could read, surely Curtis’ would), but the British filmmaker’s greatest contribution to the rom-com isn’t a literary bent, it’s his admirable adherence to injecting the more unfortunate truths of the real world into even the most feel-good of features (read our recent interview with Richard Curtis here).
The plot of Curtis’ latest, “About Time,” is ostensibly quite charming – it centers on a young Brit named Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) who is stunned to learn from his dear old dad (Bill Nighy) that the men in their family have a genetic quirk that allows them to time travel. The particulars of said quirk – they can only travel back and only within their own lives, getting to their destinations via their own memories – and Nighy’s quickly issued advice to Tim to use the ability simply to make his own life better (and not through financial wins and the like) make it clear from the start just how personal this type of ability is, at least within the context of the film. Tim’s first use of time travel is to zip back to mere hours earlier to kiss an eager pal when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve (Tim is, shockingly enough, not the best when it comes to the ladies.) It’s a small change, but it makes both Tim and his kissing compatriot extremely happy, and in a very relatable and small way.
“About Time” is not about adventuring beyond the everyday, it’s about genuinely relishing what is already real – even if embracing reality means also embracing wrenching things like death, illness, abuse, and addiction.
The film, for all its sweetness, charm and quirky plot devices, doesn’t shy away from putting reality on the screen alongside its more fantastical elements, something that Curtis excels at even in his most seemingly light-hearted features. You will most likely cry at the end of “About Time,” but not for the reasons you might expect (hint: while most of the film details the rather quotidian romance between Gleeson and Rachel McAdams, that’s not where the tears are jerked from). There is death and sadness at the center of Curtis’ sweet and sometimes silly film, and it’s not the first time he’s gone in that direction.
Curtis’ other films are equally as adept at going dark – cherished characters die in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” both Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant screw up massively (and in relatively believable ways) throughout the otherwise fairy tale-esque “Notting Hill,” and Bridget Jones’ dad gets left in wrenching fashion in “Bridget Jones’ Diary” (seriously, how awful is Bridget’s mum?). Even Curtis’ “Pirate Radio” features a series of uncomfortable bits about snatched love – Nick Frost gets down with Tom Sturridge’s new galpal, and January Jones only marries Chris O’Dowd to get closer to Rhys Ifans. And there’s this – Richard Curtis wrote the screenplay for “War Horse.” The man knows from pain and he’s not afraid to put it on the screen.
Curtis may know his way around the rom-com, but he’s never been afraid to throw whole heaping globs of crushing reality on even his most darling creations. And there is no more darling Curtis creation than “Love Actually,” a modern classic that never balks at tossing death, infidelity, mental illness, and smutty sex into a delicious stew most often remembered for its far more cutesy storylines.
The holiday hit from 2003 – an increasingly significant milestone for Generation Buzzfeed – most notably features multiple, interconnected plots that all have a little something to do with love (actually). But for every heartwarming tale – the low-key porno stand-ins who find romance while simulating sex, the daffy prime minister who realizes he’s in love with the dark-haired beauty who brings him his tea, the middle school student dazzled by a classmate – there are a bevy of related plots that feature nothing but crushing heartbreak. Love isn’t just light, joy, and happily-ever-after in Curtis’ world, and “Love Actually” is the best example of that.
Reflecting on the darkest bits of “Love Actually” inevitably involves examination of the film’s three most upsetting plotlines, strikingly humanistic threads which are all endowed with their own uniquely heartbreaking elements and individual darknesses.
Let’s talk about Joni Mitchell. Specifically, let’s talk about Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, and Heike Makatsch. More specifically, let’s talk about what a prize douchebag Alan Rickman’s Harry is, so unoriginal and boring that he cheats on his doting wife (Thompson) with his morally loose assistant (Makatsch), a cliché affair of the highest order. Once Thompson’s Karen discovers her husband’s infidelity, she escapes from their family Christmas celebration, you ruddy fool to their own bedroom, simply to silently cry while listening to her new Joni Mitchell album. It is the most raw scene of the entire film, and it stands out not only because of its deep-cutting realism, but because it’s the sort of honest occurrence we rarely (if ever) see in other romantic comedies (it is, in short, not romantic and not comedic, but damn if it isn’t wonderful).
Also injecting startling realism into the dizzy and fizzy love stories of “Love Actually” is Liam Neeson as Daniel, newly widowed and tasked with raising a precocious and lovestruck stepson (the charming Thomas Brodie-Sangster) on his own. Not content to just tell us that Daniel is in mourning, Curtis gives us another show-stopping funeral reminiscent of Gareth’s send-off in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. We never get to meet Daniel’s wife and Sam’s mum, but we get how wonderful she is and how much she will be missed. Richard Curtis romantic comedies – the unlikely home of plenty of great funerals.
Not to be outdone by almighty death, “Love Actually” spends significant time exploring the effects of mental illness, specifically the effects they have on family members. Laura Linney’s Sarah is a secret-keeper throughout the film, from her whispered phone calls (“your mobile!”) to her consuming crush on coworker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro, giving new meaning to the term “Hot Karl”). When she and Karl finally, finally get down to it (thanks to a holiday party – more veracity from Curtis!), their amorous activities are interrupted by Sarah’s blinking mobile. Again. As ever. On the other end of the line? The mental institution that houses her ill brother. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Sarah, ever dedicated to her family, leaves Karl in the lurch to attend to her brother, presumably putting the kibosh on any further interactions between her and her dreamy coworker. Wrenching stuff.
On a lower tier of twisting pain is the sorta-love-triangle between Mark (Andrew Lincoln), Juliet (Keira Knightley), and Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a plotline that only grows more bittersweet with subsequent rewatching. While the infidelity of the doltish Harry causes the pain in his own marriage, it’s Juliet’s unquestionable love for Peter that wounds the heart of the sulky Mark. Even Colin Firth, the male half of the film’s very funny and sweet international romance, gets kicked in the gut by love early on – he catches his own brother sneaking around his house after getting it on with Firth’s lady.
“Love Actually” may be best remembered for lighthearted bits like porno shoots, homemade octopus costumes ("eight is a lot of legs, David"), stolen kisses revealed to a shocked public, and even a classic mad dash through the airport, but the majority of it pulls the curtain off the dark loneliness of love in a manner that is both effective and entertaining. Pairing infidelity with marriage proposals, death with first love, and unrequited love with, well, requited love puts “Love Actually” in a class above other romantic comedies, a world made whole by way of showing both sides of every coin.