Love Actually: One Subplot To Rule Them All
Eleven months out of the year, Love Actually‘s cocktail of schmaltz and angst is about as potent as a shot of diet cola, but come December, Richard Curtis’s festive smorgasbord of British actors, holiday cheer and gooey love stories is magically transformed into a tonic so powerful it has been known to make grown men weep.
It’s hard to pinpoint what makes the film so irresistible–although much of the credit must go to its sprawling and talented cast–but the secret may be found in its kaleidoscope approach to storytelling. With nine intersecting storylines jostling for attention, Love Actually really does have something for everyone, and each story is geared to tap into the heightened emotions the holiday season brings out in all of us, whether we are lovelorn singletons, parents or aging bachelors. The film’s sneaky secret is that it doesn’t matter if every plotline speaks to you; as long as one of them does, Love Actually will have you right where it wants you–blubbering on your couch while basked in the soft glow of twinkling Christmas lights.
But that doesn’t mean all of those subplots are created equal. While each one has the potential to appeal to a different segment of the audience, one of them must be objectively better than the rest, right? Having recently completed my first Love Actually viewing of the holiday season (there will inevitably be more), it struck me that not all of the subplots are aging as gracefully up as one might hope they would. So, in the spirit of healthy competition and a Grinch like need to pit Colin Firth’s love that transcends language against Laura Linney’s soul-crushing inability to seal the deal with Rodrigo Santoro, I decided we should suss out which Love Actually is the best, so that future generations can feel free to fast forward through all of the Colin bits.
David and Natalie: David (Hugh Grant) is the newly elected Prime Minister, and Natalie (Martine McCutcheon) is the adorably profane member of his household staff, whom he falls in love with the moment she starts nervously babbling and cursing her way through their introduction. There is not a lot of time spent on explaining why they’re in love with each other, but they’re so darn cute, it’s not hard to hand wave the fact that their only real conversation comes after David knocks on every door of the dodgy end of Wandsworth in order to apologize to her.
Billy Mack and Joe: As aging rock star Billy Mack, Bill Nighy almost walks away with the entire movie. His naked cynicism about the atrociousness of his holiday cover of The Trogg’s “Love is All Around” balances out Love Actually‘s earnestness, and provides the film with a healthy dose of humor. Billy’s longtime manager Joe (Gregor Fisher) is along for the ride as Billy talks his way to the number one spot on the charts just in time for Christmas–a feat Billy decides to celebrate with his pal instead of partying with Elton John, leading to a poignant nod to platonic love as Billy begrudgingly admits that Joe is “the love of his life.”
Juliet, Mark and Peter: Juliet (Keira Knightley) is married to Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is best friends with Mark (Andrew Lincoln), who is in love with Juliet. There’s absolutely no reason this story should work, but Lincoln sells Mark’s soulful pining so convincingly that it’s one of the strongest subplots in the film. It also features the film’s most romantic (and iconic) moment in the form of Mark’s swoon-inducing Christmas Eve declaration of love “without hope or agenda,” that earns him a consolation kiss from Juliet.
John and Judy: John (Martin Freeman) and Judy’s (Joanna Page) rather explicit meet-cute leads to a genuinely sweet love story that could easily be expanded into a full-length quirky romcom. Despite being sex scene stand-ins, both John and Judy are shy, and their courtship is full of cautious bantering that takes place during increasingly awkward simulated sexual situations. Their story may not be as flashy as some of the others, but it’s one of the only ones that becomes more compelling with every viewing.
Harry and Karen: In one of the weaker subplots, Harry (Alan Rickman) contemplates cheating on his wife, Karen (Emma Thompson), with his new secretary, Mia (Heike Makatsch), who is so hypersexualized as a character that she’s too comical to be taken seriously. The over-the-topness of Harry’s potential paramour and the general skeeviness of Harry (which isn’t a dig at the terrific Rickman, but rather a problem with the thin writing of the character) detracts somewhat from the fine, heartbreaking work delivered by Thompson.
Sarah and Karl: Thanks to Sarah (Laura Linney) and Karl (Rodrigo Santoro), Love Actually is actually depressing. Bumping the trend that every subplot needs a happy ending, Sarah’s story stands as a harsh reminder that although love is all around, sometimes it blows. After years of pining for Karl, Sarah finally works up the nerve to ask the guy back to her place, but constant calls from her mentally unstable brother puts a damper on the mood, and the moment passes, leaving Sarah as alone and forlorn as the cheese at the end of “The Farmer in the Dell.”
Jaime and Aurelia: Jaime (Colin Firth) and Aurelia’s (Lucia Moniz) subplot suffers a bit because the mere thought that anyone would cheat on Firth is absurd. That quibble aside, their love conquers language barriers storyline is charming, if a bit goofy towards the end.
Colin’s Quest For American Girls: Colin’s (Kris Marshall) quest to find a hot, American girlfriend doesn’t quite fit in with Love Actually‘s themes since it’s not love that Colin wants, it’s sex. Lucky for him, Christmas is a time for miracles and he ends up stumbling across January Jones, Elisha Cuthbert and Ivana Milicevic in a bar in Wisconsin, and thanks to his “cute, British accent” they are instantly enamored with him. Is Colin’s tale outlandish? Of course, but Curtis had to include something crazy enough to distract viewers from their lingering melancholy over Sarah’s depressing Christmas.
Daniel and Sam: Finally, we have Daniel (Liam Neeson) and Sam (Thomas Sangster), the stepfather and stepson duo, who are left alone after the death of Joanna, Daniel’s wife and Sam’s mother. Their grief is underplayed just enough to keep their situation from being too heartbreaking for an ensemble romantic comedy to sustain, but not so much so that it doesn’t resonate. They distract themselves from their pain with Sam’s pursuit of his first love, a young girl, who is not at all coincidentally, also named Joanna. Somewhere in between Titanic viewings and drum lessons, Sam and Daniel learn how to rely on each other and slowly begin to move on from Joanna’s death.
For me this is no contest, Daniel and Sam’s story provides Love Actually with its soul. Anchored by strong performances from Neeson and Sangster, the subplot manages to pack in lessons on loss, first love and family without an ounce of schmaltz until the very end, and even then the schmaltz is earned. Sam’s run through the airport to declare his feelings to his Joanna may capitalize on every romcom trope in the book, but it never fails to leave me bawling, and not because Sam gets a chaste kiss out of the deal, but because it’s a win for a little boy and a man who are in dire need of a bit of Christmas magic.
Daniel and Sam’s subplot is my pick, but I want to hear yours. Which Love Actually subplot do you think trumps all the others?
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