On Hating ‘Love Actually’
The beloved holiday film represents everything bad about England
I would like to say that I hate Love Actually, but the truth is that no word I possess — hate, contempt, loathing, disgust — can properly capture my rejection of this film. It’s like the onset of food poisoning: The mention of the film or the sight of the DVD on somebody’s shelf at a party or the promos for Christmas reruns now that it’s established as a classic, provoke a short, sharp spasm in me, a paroxysm of my whole being, followed by a lingering, draining malaise. The existence of Love Actually makes me like Christmas less, and I love Christmas. That others seem to enjoy it makes me think less of the world. And, worst of all, I don’t know where all this revulsion comes from. It’s just a movie after all.
Love Actually is objectively a very bad movie, but that explains nothing. The world is full of bad movies. Besides, I don’t believe in hating movies, no matter how bad. Honest critics can find a movie stupid or dishonest or boring or shoddily made or politically dubious. But hatred? That’s just a sign of something missing in yourself. If you hate Marvel movies, you’re probably just not in the target demographic. If you mock Tyler Perry movies, you’re really just mocking the people those movies are made for.
The problem is that Love Actually is made for me; it couldn’t be more made for me. I fit snugly into its target demographic: Every actor in the film has given one of my favorite performances elsewhere, and I consume an inordinate amount of English culture for somebody who doesn’t live there. It’s not just Killing Eve or Bodyguard or whatever the latest BBC export is. I watch University Challenge and Would I Lie to You? and QI and 8 Out of 10 Cats. I read Jonathan Coe novels. I have watched every episode of Rosemary and Thyme, a gardening-themed murder mystery show where the solution always comes down to some fantastical bit of horticultural knowledge. It doesn’t get any more English than that.
Love Actually takes two of the most beautiful phenomena on Earth — love and Christmas — and replaces them with Englishness.
My revulsion for Love Actually nonetheless comes principally from its Englishness. I don’t believe in hating movies and I don’t believe in hating peoples either, but Love Actually forces the question. “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think of the arrivals gate at Heathrow airport.” The opening line tells you everything you need to know about the real subject of this film. Love Actually takes two of the most beautiful phenomena on Earth — love and Christmas — and replaces them with Englishness. Love Actually predicted the Brexit era, in a way, since both are the result of the ingrained English sense of their superiority and the final proof that their sense of superiority is an antiquated fantasy. George Orwell identified the basic assumption of English conservatism back in 1939: “Nothing ever changes and foreigners are funny.” That’s the operating principle of both Brexit and Love Actually. The dominant aesthetic is entitled insularity.
Entitled insularity has overwhelmed England recently. The English Leavers may not have had an economic plan, but they definitely had a political vision: English people shouldn’t have to listen to a bunch of frogs. The people who promoted Brexit were as nostalgic for the grandeur of their lost empire as they were contemptuous of Europeans. When Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, visited the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar a couple of years ago, he began to recite “The Road to Mandalay” by Rudyard Kipling right in the temple — an act so insulting to his hosts that the U.K. ambassador had to stop him.
The day after Brexit, Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, spoke on Britain’s most prominent morning show about “re-engaging with the Commonwealth and the real friends we’ve got out there.” When I saw that clip, I have to admit that I laughed out loud. The whole absurd scenario made me want to call somebody in Trinidad or India to share in the joke. What do you think, Nigel, that we’re out here hoping for better relations with the crumbling global bully that is England?
I’m not sure Nigel Farage would work as a character in Love Actually, but Boris Johnson is as if Love Actually, by some Christmas miracle, became a person walking around in the world — the affected scruffiness, the smiling caddishness, the mastery of the comedy of embarrassment, the apparent emptiness, the worship of English clichés. But that’s not enough to explain my hatred. It is stupid to hate movies and to hate peoples, I know that. But here I am.
Love Actually is a film about Englishness, therefore it is a film about class structure.
I am obsessed with English culture while hating Englishness itself: That’s what it means to be a colonized person. I am Canadian, but I also spent part of my childhood as a schoolboy in England. In the mid-1980s, my father was studying for a PhD in semantics at the London School of Economics and sent me to a school in Cambridge, a school imbued with all the weirdness of the tribalistic English middle class, with red-and-black striped uniforms and Latin lessons and daily fist fights over my accent. I would have been 10 years old.
My first memory of that time in my life is of sitting in a grey-blue bathtub whose water had turned brown from all the mud that had coated me during a game of rugby, and I was sobbing. I was sobbing because I had scored the winning try and the other boys had rushed in to congratulate me, forgetting momentarily that I was other. Only the deep roots of childhood could feed a red-flowering hatred like mine.
It was hard to rewatch Love Actually, even as an attempt to comprehend my repulsion, because it is garbage. Each individual thread of the ensemble is stupider than the last. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure the wedding scene, in which the crowd stands up and suddenly, to everyone’s surprise, starts playing “All You Need Is Love” (interrupting the “Marseillaise” for some reason), inspired all those viral video weddings, which is enough of a crime for any film to be guilty of.
Still, much of the rom-com creepiness of Love Actually isn’t so much its own fault as the fault of all the films it’s so derivative of. There is all the standard stalkerish bullshit here — comedy scenes that, if played with ominous music rather than Christmas carols over them, would be straight out of horror.
In the film’s most famous scene, a hopelessly besotted Andrew Lincoln, in love with his best friend’s wife, holds up a bunch of signs, à la “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” while Keira Knightley does that thing she does with her mouth that sells so much perfume. With even the slightest amount of context, the whole business is super, super weird and inappropriate — it literally begins with a pronouncement for the woman, as the object of desire, to be silent.
The Colin Firth plot, in which he plays a bumbling writer falling in love with his Portuguese housekeeper, may be the most despicable. A tip for men: If you fall in love with a woman who doesn’t speak your language and whose job is to bring you food and drinks, you’re not falling in love. You just want a woman to serve you.
Hugh Grant, also bumbling, also falls in love with the woman whose job is to bring him drinks in the afternoon. Hugh Grant is unendurable in himself, the stammering English aristocrat who can only play the comedy of embarrassment. The comedy of embarrassment appears to mock, but surreptitiously justifies, the social codes of the class system. It’s at the core of writer-director Richard Curtis’s fantasy of Englishness, which is why Grant stars in all his biggest movies: We’re rich and good-looking and super-educated, but we’re also as much victims of this ridiculous order that keeps us in a state of permanent arbitrary power. Isn’t it frightful?
The Grant thread of the narrative is where the politics of 2018 and the politics of Love Actually meet up, in twinned stories of pointless English defiance. In 2003, the defiance was about England’s so-called “special relationship” with the United States, a phrase which has always been hilarious to non-English people. America has a “special relationship” with Great Britain the way a professional athlete has a “special relationship” with each groupie in each city he travels to. In the film, the American president offers a vague threat: “I’ll give you anything you ask for, as long as it’s not something I don’t want to give.” Nobody knows what he’s talking about, and Grant’s anger is equally vague. His swelling speech is defiance for its own sake. Just like Brexit.
But Grant’s defiance isn’t totally without cause even if it’s without purpose. Why does he takes a stand again the United States? Because he accidentally catches the Billy Bob Thornton president making a move on the woman whose job it is to serve him tea in the afternoon. The whole confrontation boils down to his violated right to the flesh of English womanhood. “We may be a small country, but we are a great one,” Grant says in the middle of all this pointlessness. You can find your own sexual implications.
Which brings us to Natalie. Love Actually is certainly not the only movie to portray a normal-sized woman as ludicrously fat. The date of the film’s release offers an explanation if not an excuse. Love Actually came out at the end of the 1990s, right after heroin chic had dominated London fashion. Natalie is what? Size six? She is described as a “plumpy” with “thighs the size of tree trunks” and a “sizeable ass.” It is literally offered as a comical situation that powerful men would want to sleep with her.
The main thrust of the politics in Love Actually is not to be found in the prime minister thread, though. It’s to be found in the final school concert. All English popular culture derives from their school system — that is my grand unifying theory of English popular culture, and I’ve never known it to fail. It’s not just Harry Potter, the most obvious example. The popularity of Top Gear, which was shown in over 200 countries by the end of its run, had little to do with the subject of cars. Top Gear was about two little twerps trying to keep themselves in the good graces of the school bully. The bully was always outwitting the masters at the BBC until he was expelled. There is a direct line between bad boy Flashman from Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Jeremy Clarkson.
Love Actually is a film about Englishness, therefore it is a film about class structure, therefore it is a film about school. The lower classes are represented by Natalie and the young man who goes to America because American girls are easy. The upper class — naturally the ruling class — is represented by Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, and Emma Thompson. Everybody else is in the middle.
The lynchpin of the film’s fantasy is that school concert, which all the characters attend, tying the various threads of the ensemble together. The idea of this film is that, in the end, for the children, England puts away class distinctions, and everybody sits down together at the table of brotherhood to listen to an American girl sing a cover of “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” The neoliberal vision purified.
It is a completely ludicrous notion, needless to say, that the prime minister’s nieces and nephews would attended the same school concert as the family of the woman who serves him tea. The current cabinet is five times more likely to have received a private education than the general public. (Note that Richard Curtis served as head boy at Harrow.) The English school system is the engine of class structure, and the education it provides, the codes it steeps children in, become the principal justification for the class structure in adult life. The sorting hat is very real if much more specific in where it sorts the real English little boys and girls. That’s why school is the core subject of English popular culture: It is where the meanings of people’s lives in society are determined.
Love Actually is a romcom defined by the absence of any sensual pleasure for its characters. Nobody fucks. Nobody eats.
In the middle class school I attended, the boys were carved into levels within forms. Everybody knew whose family name was in the Domesday Book, I remember. Even though we were 10 years old, you could have lined up every boy in my form from the highest to lowest class, and everybody would have known exactly which spot they fit into. The system made no sense to me when I arrived; I stayed just long enough for it to make sense. Then I left.
I remember one school event. It wasn’t a Christmas concert. It was a spring fete. My mother, who was at the time studying bulimia and anorexia, attended with me. She packed for us what Canadian families bring to their picnics — plums and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and juice boxes, the stuff of sensible nourishment. And when we arrived on the rolling grounds of the cricket field, that embodiment of willful insularity, the other boys’ families, dressed in suits and ties, had spread out the majesty of their hampers onto traditional checkered blankets to display cheeses and cold chicken with pears, champagne, and strawberries with cream.
My mother and I realized our error and slunk off to a small hill to sit down with our backs to a chain-link fence. The bread of exile was dry, the peanut butter sticky in the mouth. The plums of exclusion were mealy. On the cricket field below, the champagne bottles stood bright and stately as Georgian castles belonging to pedophile aristocrats. The strawberries looked divine and hateful.
The English devour their lost empire continuously. They drink the tea made possible by the opium wars on China, with patents ensured by the imposition of freedom of trade, with cheap sugar cubes made possible by the slave trade to the West Indies. Every citizen, no matter how poor, may eat the memory of the conquest of foreigners every day.
By three to one, British people believe the empire is “something to be proud of rather than ashamed of.” They believe they left the colonies better off than they found them. A third believe the empire should still exist. Because they are suffused with these historical delusions, they are in a state of radical misunderstanding about their place in the world. Brexit has revealed their complete indifference to the vast ocean of suffering sprung from their history. It is simply of no concern to them that the Irish border may well be thrown back into the state of tormented horror for which their responsibility is obvious.
The greatest feast in the history of the Earth was the Delhi Durbar of Jan. 1, 1877, the ceremony declaring Victoria the empress of India, Kaisar-i-Hind, which took place during the middle of the Bengal famine. About 84,000 officials and members of the Indian aristocracy gathered to be shuffled in a political sleight of hand. Lord Lytton, the viceroy, acknowledged the scam in a secret letter to Lord Salisbury on May 11, 1876: “We certainly cannot afford to give them any increase in political power independent of our own,” he wrote about the Indians. “Fortunately for us, however, they are easily affected by sentiment, and susceptible to the influence of symbols to which facts very inadequately correspond.” The minutiae of symbolic negotiation consumed every attention of all levels of the Indian political classes, the business of interweaving the antique aristocracy and a new code manufactured out of English cynicism and Victorian fantasies of feudalism. (Rudyard Kipling’s father designed the new coats of arms.)
To accommodate the visitors, 100 villages were cleared in a space of five miles, preventing the planting of the winter crops. An entire road system had to be developed to accommodate the ceremony and the parades that followed the inauguration of a Royal Cup Race, loyal addresses, exhibitions, marches, and feasts. Feasts above all: The Maharaja Scindia alone spent 20,000 lakhs on a single meal. Meanwhile, the estimates of the deaths from famine in Bengal during the period of the Durbar alone was a hundred thousand people. The pariah dogs grew fat on the bodies of the starved, abandoned children. That’s the empire that England built. That’s how it was built.
The basic irony of Brexit is that all the devices and frauds that England manufactured to construct and to justify its empire have come home to haunt them. You could easily describe the English today as Lord Lytton once described the Indians: “They are easily affected by sentiment, and susceptible to the influence of symbols to which facts very inadequately correspond.” The strategy of divide and rule which all around the world stirred minor historical differences into longstanding conflicts for the sake of the imperial interest (see Ireland, the Middle East, India) now threatens the United Kingdom itself. Primordial loathings are emerging. Why would the Scots, who have been in the Union since 1707, stay any longer than they have to? The innate sense of English superiority has led them into imminent humiliation.
There is justice in it, though not the kind of justice the world needs.
In the fall of this year, in the New York Times, Megan Nolan, an Irish writer living in London, described how Brexit was making her hate the English more than she had before. “In the midst of all this, I’ve noticed a tonal shift in the way I and other Irish people speak about the English,” she wrote. “Our anger is more sincere. We are more ready to call them out on all those centuries of excess, more likely to object to those pink-trousered, pink-faced dinosaurs who still perceive us as their inferiors.”
When you wander through London and stare upon the statues of the great Englishmen of the past, it is hard not to feel the world would have been better if most of them had died in obscurity. And yet I can’t help but feel that Nolan’s anger, while justified completely, is somewhat misplaced. Strangely enough, rewatching Love Actually helped me see it.
The best thread in the whole movie, the only thread that contains a recognizable act of humor and insight, is the part in which Martin Freeman and Joanna Page make awkward small talk while acting as stand-ins for a sex scene; the joke is that they’re hugely repressed even when they’re naked and simulating sex acts. It’s funny but it’s also unbelievably sad. Love Actually is a rom-com defined by the absence of any sensual pleasure for its characters. Nobody fucks. Nobody eats. Everywhere else in the world fucking and eating together is the substance of actual love but not in Love Actually. The film loves stereotypes so much that it can’t even bring itself to deny the stereotype the rest of the world holds of the English, that they’re shit in bed and can’t cook. Entitled insularity has its costs.
Here’s my deepest memory of England. I had one friend, a diffident, dutiful boy named Ian who was a new boy like me. His family invited my family to their country cottage one weekend. We drove through the fog over narrow roads slicing through pastures to a thatched cottage. This was the real England, Hobbit shit — soggy and cozy and old and heavy and dense. In the dark-paneled parlor, the family had a wheel of Stilton, I remember, like a little cream table crackling with electric blue veins. This was all nearly 30 years ago, but one scene I do remember. My father and Ian’s father were talking about the rugby team, and Ian’s father described the other team as a bunch of “niggers.”
What confused me most was that there hadn’t been a boy with black skin on the team he was talking about. My father looked appalled, swallowed his discomfort, and changed the subject. (Later, he took me aside to give me a lecture about the evils of the word.) But I learned the lesson, the Canadian lesson, the lesson of the colonized: Politeness matters more than politics. I cannot say that I have unlearned that lesson yet. Would I react differently than my father if faced by the same situation with my son watching? I doubt it.
That’s the England of Brexit: A man seated cozily at his wheel of cheese in the fog, and the world outside is not entirely human. That’s why I disagree with Nolan, the Irish writer who finds her contempt growing as Brexit approaches. It is better just to walk away from such people. Ireland’s future is much brighter than England’s, no matter what England does or does not do. That’s the truth.
It’s also the England of Love Actually: smug without intelligence, unrealistic without fantasy, sentimental without affection, unfunny, unimaginative, nonsensical, and, to be brief so I don’t go on about it too long, I can’t say that I like it very much. It is a sign, like Brexit, of England stepping away from the world to become just another country, and they deserve what any other country deserves: pity and hope for the best.