I Need to Talk About Love Actually… And Then I Actually Need to Fix It

David Armstrong
25 min readDec 10, 2018

Thank you for coming to my TEDTalk. I have come to a foundation-shaking realization this week. My best friend phrased it thus: “You reacted like a child piecing together that Santa isn’t real.” I have to see past the shiny veneer of Christmas, I have to stop appealing to my romantic side, and I have to set aside my nostalgia bias. Yes, friends. It is time for me to admit it, much as it pains me to do so: Love Actually might not be… all that very good, maybe? Or more simply: Love Actually… is a bad movie.

Alternately, this is a fun cast for a Clue remake.

In preparing to write this talk, I came across an entire contingent of the internet entrenched in a decade-long debate over this movie. (The movie came out in 2003.) There are hard-line rejectionists and well-meaning apologists all over the spectrum. Similar to how I feel about Santa Claus himself, I fall somewhere in the middle; I acknowledge the movie’s shortcomings but there is nothing wrong with the idea inherently. There is nothing wrong with believing in romance, or believing there are positive vibes, possibly even miracles, to be gained from Christmas. Unfortunately, that shiny veneer I talked about earlier? It is used here in this film to cover up flaws in its execution.

I described the movie to my friend as a cavalcade of incredibly talented and charming British actors celebrating Christmas and romance in a talented and charming way. There are trappings of great stories here, they have the first part of a satisfying narrative: many solid beginnings. The middle of the movie gets bogged by rotating too many storylines and developing none of the characters involved in them. Meanwhile, the flash and backdrop of Christmas, and the wish fulfillment of grand, sweeping romantic gestures (and also, in some cases, inexplicably Rowan Atkinson) successfully get us to ignore the underdeveloped characters (particularly the female characters), the lack of depth in any of the relationships we’re meant to care about, and the dearth of satisfying resolution for any of our storylines.

And sometimes, including with Love Actually, that’s okay! Not every movie is going to be perfect. In fact, most movies are not. And even after all these years and even this harrowing realization, I still enjoy the hell out of this movie. It’s fluffy meaningless fun with a couple solid jokes, a couple of genuinely charming moments, and again some caliber acting that elevates this material to the levels of Shakespeare (or Harry Potter! David Beckham’s right foot. David Beckham’s left foot, come to that). I saw this movie in theaters, at Christmas, in 2003. I was in high school. I was lonely, awkward, and I was madly in love with a girl who did not love me back. I related to all the worst aspects of the characters in this movie. Not all of the stories are about true love. I get that now that I’m older. Some of them are about romance, or rekindling your ability to love again, or prioritizing which love is important to you. Some of them are just about immeasurable, irrational crushes that consume you. Especially at Christmas, when we’re reminded constantly how awful it is if you’re alone at this time. Some of the hard-line rejectionists see these storylines as nothing more than lust since to an audience they’re all based simply on appearance. But that’s a weakness of the writing. We get so little insight into these characters’ inner thoughts that we’re left with assumptions. But I disagree with them. Like I said, with the exception of Liam Neeson’s character and his wife (Johanna) (may she rest in peace) and perhaps Prime Minister Hugh Grant, none of the characters are experiencing “the one.” And Kris Marshall’s Colin (with the big knob) is the only pure lust of the storylines. I can understand walking away from the movie feeling like the execution fails the premise. But I don’t have time to debate when the movie has been misinterpreted.

Instead, I do always think there is room for improvement. And that’s what I wanted to attempt to do here. I’m going to perform a Christmas miracle, and fix Love Actually.

What I think the movie needs are increasing characters’ agency within their stories, more focused narratives that allow the characters to develop actual relationships that we can believe as a movie audience, and a more up-front and bold redefinition of what ‘love’ actually means within the film’s world. So with that in mind, follow me as I go story-by-story, offer my suggestions for changes and reasoning behind them and perhaps we end up with a better movie.

Billy Mack and Joe

In the original: The endlessly compelling Bill Nighy’s rock star Billy Mack feels “past it” after releasing a Christmas single that ends up topping the charts. Gregor Fisher plays Joe, the put-upon manager of the fading rock idol who has remained loyal despite the insufferable Billy. Billy Mack’s scenes mostly consist of interviews where he breaks all taboos: talking about how much he enjoys the drugs and sex of the rock and roll lifestyle and a subsequent cut to Joe throwing his hands in the air yet again. One legitimate joke I have always loved is when he is on Ant & Dec’s charts show and refers to one of them as, “Ant or Dec.”

In mine: I wouldn’t change much about the story itself. I think the scenes get repetitive though. We get the joke: Billy Mack is going to say something inappropriate on TV. Keep the opening scene where he is recording the song. Keep the radio interview. Every other scene Mack appears in are interstitial scenes: it’s Mack and Joe on the road, arguing, bantering, talking about their storied pasts. Give Joe more to do. He has one advantage over Billy: he remembers everything because he was sober and clean for their time together. Maybe a bunch of that rockstar luster is more bluster than anything, and Joe reminds Mack of the real ghosts of his past. You also see how much effort he puts into making Billy look, sound, and feel his best. He’s on top of everything. And by the last scene, Billy is the one who admits that he wouldn’t have much of a life without him, and won’t have much of a future without him either. They hug and spend Christmas together, and we remove the final joke which is essentially Billy Mack saying, “No homo.” But yeah, that’s right. Past, present, future. Billy Mack and Joe are now our Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley if Marley had never died (which is a phrase that somehow works for more than one film), and Scrooge learns the true value of a best friend before it’s too late.

Sarah and Karl

In the original: America’s Sweetheart Laura Linney plays Sarah, a single working lady whom everyone in her office can tell is in love with Office Hot Guy Karl (played by Rodrigo Santoro, which I’m told in some circles is a pure “panty-dropping name.”) Only problem is she seems wholly preoccupied with her cell phone which rings throughout. (Keep in mind, this is 2003 we’re in here. Anyone answering their phone in public was still considered extremely rude.) I don’t know about anyone else, but when I saw the movie back then I remember theorizing she was married and Karl was an attempt to have an affair, or she was talking to a special needs child of hers. It is actually her brother Michael, who is mentally ill. Like many Hollywood portrayals of the mentally ill, we never delve into what ails Michael, simply the Hollywood General Mental Illness Disorder. Sarah and Karl go out on an enjoyable date, they make it back to her place, but before any hanky or even panky materializes, Sarah is interrupted by a phone call. They seemingly never try again and Sarah spends Christmas with her brother in the hospital/psych ward/lobby of a Hollywood Generic Florescent-Lit Building Of Medicine. A lot of this storyline relies on the magic of Laura Linney making silent reactions toward the camera. It’s a reminder that she’s a fantastic actor, and that there isn’t really a whole lot to this story. It’s a hook-up that never happens.

In mine: I am taking out Karl. (Don’t worry Rodrigo fans. I’m using him later.) (Please don’t take that out of context.) Sarah’s plagued by her phone. Any scene she’s in she’s checking it, and as soon as it rings she dismisses herself to answer. I would honestly like to use one of my failed theories. And I’d prefer to use the latter. Linney’s Sarah is a single mom, a working mom, and will drop everything at the slightest hint of trouble with her son who requires round-the-clock medical attention. Her friends try to set her up with guys she might like, her brother keeps telling her to take some time off, her co-workers keep asking her to take on more work. She dismisses it all. I don’t have the slightest idea what the company she, Karl, Alan Rickman, and that secretary all work at even though I just watched this movie, but probably advertising? Anyway, her ultimate moment is her project manager telling her she has to choose between doing this one job or “answering your phone again, or whatever.” And she chooses to leave. She tells them off. It’s a great monologue. It’s about Christmas, and how she never has to choose what’s important, she already knows. “You’ll have to work Christmas!” her manager reminds her as the door closes behind her. So her final scene is her at her kid’s bedside. He’s asleep, opened presents around him. She squeezes his hand. Then she sits down at a dimly lit cobbled-together workspace and sets about working. She’s the badass hero of this movie.

Colin and the American Girls

In the original: Sigh… Colin Frissell (played admittedly to perfection by the most British of Brits, Kris Marshall) is striking out with asking British girls whom he realizes are too stuck up. (Even though his real problem is he’s an insensitive dick to them, but let’s not worry about that.) He makes a big plan to go to America and find an American girl. He… he does it. And then some. He finds a “typical American bar” in Milwaukee, ends up meeting three American girls who are all about in their 20s, single, dressed like they’re going clubbing (and not to a dive bar), and all sleep in a single bed, naked. I believe they said because they can’t afford pajamas? And the suggestion of the silhouettes in the following scene is that Colin agrees to sleep at their place and then presumably has sex with all of them? With three ladies played by model Ilana Milicevic, Girl Next Door Elisha Cuthbert, and soon to be Betty Draper/Emma Frost January Jones? And they’re eventually joined by American Pie’s inadvertent webcam stripper Nadia, Shannon Elizabeth? I must have found this hilarious and as a single teenage boy (I was 15, with a provisional driver’s license, and absolutely nowhere to go) very, very promising!

In mine: I just don’t like it. Simply on a moviemaking level, it has no credibility and destroys all suspension of disbelief. I get that we probably need some comedy for this Christmas movie, but if my intent is to make this movie more meaningful and grounded and in some way interesting, then here’s what I would do. The British portion of Colin’s life plays out the same, with one scene less. He gets rejected twice and puts together the America plan in one scene, next scene he’s at the airport. When he gets to America, he finds that American girls aren’t interested in him either. He’s getting rejected left and right. (I know, this is the only hard part to believe about my rewrite, because British accents. No one rejects a British accent, am I right!?) But for whatever reason you want to paint in, it’s just not working. He’s at one last bar, sitting by himself, near the jukebox. He’s got a stack of quarters. We just see a hand appear with a dollar. He doesn’t even look. “Sure, knock yourself out, mate. I just realized I don’t like American music much.” The owner of the hand takes some quarters, dropping the dollar on the table. “If I find one to your liking, will you dance with me?” The voice catches him off-guard. Because it’s a British accent. She’s sweet and smiling. (I’m picturing Carey Mulligan. Which would have made this her film debut, instead of Pride & Prejudice two years later.) She does. They do. We have one extra scene where he doesn’t want to go back and expresses that he can’t believe, “I had to come all the way to America just to find you.” She promises to visit.

Jamie and Aurelia

In the original: Colin Firth’s Jamie is an author who is very much in love with his current girlfriend whom we find out in the first scene of the storyline that not only is she rude she’s also cheating on him. With his brother. Who acts like an absolute bell-end. Jamie sequesters himself at his French villa which is house-kept by a non-English speaking Portuguese woman named Aurelia (Lucia Moniz) in an attempt to turn pain into prose and finish his novel. Jamie and Aurelia surprisingly have the most male-gazey scene, when Jamie is writing outside on a windy day with no paperweight and his finished pages go flying into the lake and Aurelia decides to strip all the way to her underwear for some reason to try and retrieve them. Credit where it’s due, one joke I do appreciate is Jamie saying, “Now she’ll think I’m a total spaz if I don’t go in too.” At least he doesn’t leave her to do all the work. Over the rest of the movie, they try to communicate a little, especially on the daily car rides, where Jamie has to take Aurelia home. Again, credit where it’s due: I do find it a genuinely sweet moment when they have this brief exchange in their own languages: Jamie — “It’s my favorite part of the day. Driving with you.” Aurelia — “It’s my least favorite part of the day. Leaving you.” Upon returning home (and I guess finishing a whole novel?) Jamie learns Portuguese and on Christmas returns to France to propose to Aurelia. It’s carried by Colin Firth being effortlessly charming as he bumbles through broken Portuguese and aided by hilarious translation captions.

In mine: I think the lake scene is the most unnecessary part of not just this story but the entire film. If there’s one strong argument to be made that this film isn’t about love at all, it’s the inexplicable inclusion of that moment. I love Colin Firth. But I think this storyline most allows me to do a guy/girl flip. Instead, we have a female author who, because of a cheating partner, sequesters herself at her cabin. We get to do the rom-com storyline. Complete with adding a typical best friend character who’s constantly telling our female author to sleep with the sexy housekeeper who doesn’t speak much English. But we get to do a subversion of it by the end. Jamie (she’s still named Jamie. I don’t know who plays her, though) and the housekeeper (Aurelio?) sleep together. It’s a one-night stand. Heck, let’s straight up steal from The Notebook. She’s out on a boat, it starts to rain, he swims out to pull the boat in, they run into the house soaked, they sleep together. On her last day before going home, he confesses in broken English that he might be in love with her, and she gently rejects him. Tells him it’s not love, but it is wildly romantic and he’s going to make someone very happy someday when he really does fall in love with them. “Hopefully, they’ll be ready too,” she says as they hug goodbye.

I think the original movie misses a big opportunity. We have two high-profile characters: Prime Minister Hugh Grant and rockstar Bill Nighy. I think we could do with a few more. One of them should be Jamie, who should be a higher profile author. Also, Kris Marshall’s friend (played by Abdul Salis) is the PA on that porno shoot that we’ll get to? Can he just be a semi-notable director? Now Jamie gets to come home and is interviewed and is asked does she have an idea for the next novel? And she gets to smile to herself and say she does. “It’s about a man who broke a woman’s heart. But in so doing gave that woman the choice to love however she felt was right for her. And even when someone came to her declaring his love, she still had the choice. It was always her choice. It’s actually about her.” Jamie is also the female badass hero of this movie.

John and Judy

In the original: Speaking of that porno, a couple played by a fresh-faced Martin Freeman and Gavin & Stacy’s Joanna Page, John and Judy are body doubles for a film set where the previously mentioned Abdul Salis’ Tony is a PA. Most of John and Judy’s scenes are abrupt cut-to’s, where they are simulating mid-sex acts and awkwardly trying to make small talk but never really making much progress. Eventually, he asks her out. They share an awkward kiss. Iconic moment: Martin Freeman jumping off three steps in abandoned exuberance after saying good night before immediately composing himself and walking off into the evening. At the end of the movie, they are at the airport too (for some reason) and show Tony their engagement rings.

In mine: I am charmed by Martin Freeman. I think that’s the only reason I have given this storyline such a pass over the years. Here’s my fix, and it’s a bold one. Their establishing scenes play out much more subdued. No simulating sex. Mostly it’s them standing around nude, maybe one of them walking from mark to mark so the camera placement is right. Being actual body doubles. They talk about interests they have, but are so nervous and get worried that they don’t really have much to say. When they leave set they awkwardly say good night. The second time, they attempt a hug but it’s bad hand placement, weird distance, too short, and they don’t get the head orientation right. The third time, they ask each out simultaneously. We actually see their date. It’s cute, they’re just at dinner, but they’re still finding it hard to talk. We’re rooting for them to connect. He drops her off at her place and they have about the same amount of success with their hug. She closes the door, he sees a nearby office supply store and we see him get an idea. He knocks on her door later and it’s the iconic scene. The posters. “Hi Judy,” it says. “I just have so much on my mind when I’m with you that I clam up. I don’t know what to say first.” “So let me just say… I think you’re wonderful. To me, you are perfect.” “I want to spend so much more time with you.” Judy says, “All I want for Christmas is you.” And this makes John smile. He reveals the last card: “All I want for Christmas is you.” They kiss.

Juliet and Mark (and Peter)

In the original: So since I stole it from them, let’s talk about Elizabeth Swan and Sheriff Rick Grimes. Keira Knightley’s Juliet marries Peter (I keep forgetting badass Chiwetel Ejiofor is in this) at the top of the film. Best man Mark (Andrew Lincoln) is on hand to videotape the proceedings. We get the feeling that Mark can’t stand Juliet but is sucking it up for his best friend. Later, Juliet needs Mark’s footage because she wants a good shot of her in her wedding dress. Well, she’s come to the right place! Because Mark’s footage is… all… of… her? What does this mean!? It’s actually some satisfying acting from both of them as they wordlessly convey the whole scene. Knightley goes from confused to shattered realization as Mark goes from paralyzed to unrequited discomfort as the footage rolls. Then we get the movie’s actual version of its most iconic scene: on Christmas Eve, Mark arrives at Juliet and Peter’s door, pretends to be carolers, and delivers a message on poster board for Juliet. He has been in love with her forever. It makes her cry, it makes her laugh, it’s heartfelt and romantic. As he leaves, Juliet runs after him, gives him a kiss. In the moment, it feels beautiful and grand and like seizing the day. I realize there are troubling implications to this whole scene. What do they all do now? Juliet has now kissed a man mere weeks after her wedding, and not just any man, her husband’s best friend. And I always hate asking nitpicky questions like this, but what if Peter had answered the door? What then, Rick!?

In mine: I have taken away their big moment, given it to the storyline that I think deserves it so that it actually has an ending. What does that leave Juliet and Mark and Peter? Well, in a throwaway moment at the reception, Laura Linney is with Andrew Lincoln, and flat out asks him, “Do you love him?” She then goes on to explain, “I thought I’d ask the blunt question in case it was the right one but no one had ever asked you and you needed someone to talk to about it.” He says no and it never materializes because we go the heteronormative route. Again, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with a story involving two best friends in love with the same woman. But we have an opportunity here to improve two storylines. First, it’s a marvelously perceptive moment for Laura Linney’s Sarah if she’s actually right. This gives us a brilliant character development for her. She can discern something people who are closer to them have seemingly not picked up on. This is why she’s able to read people, this why she’s able to empathize so easily, and why she’s such a good connector and why she (probably???) works in advertising! Her fatal flaw is her unyielding loyalty to her son. Now, obviously that’s not a flaw, that’s being a mother. But in terms of a story narrative, she makes these brilliant connections like with Mark, but then the connection has to be cut short because she has to take the phone call. It’s unfortunate, but it’s life. But yes, let’s make this an unrequited love for Peter. His best friend. Who isn’t gay. He couldn’t help it. Why would he fall in love with someone who is absolutely not his type? A straight guy? The absolute mess. So instead, this storyline’s iconic scene is a scene earlier, when Juliet goes to visit Mark. There isn’t any weird footage, Juliet just wants to attempt to smooth things over with Mark. And we get a scene from two brilliant actors who get to act. They can’t be at odds with each other, not if they’re both going to be in Peter’s life. Mark hesitantly admits maybe he can’t and shouldn’t remain a fixture in Peter’s life, it’s too painful. Juliet won’t simply take dancing around the issue. She refuses to leave until she understands just why he’s so distant with her and why he is so weird about this. He tearfully admits his unrequited feelings. He doesn’t know why they happened, and he’s worked very hard to get over them, but he feels somehow betrayed that Peter and she worked out so fast and maybe on a selfish level he feels like he’s always going to be alone. They hug. It’s a barrier broken down, and no more words are needed. At the end of the movie, when we catch them at the airport, the scene starts with Mark showing pictures of him and his boyfriend to Juliet and Peter. He says, “We’re taking it slow. But he’s pretty cute.” Peter and Mark share a hug. Peter: “I’m so happy for you, man.” Juliet, behind Peter, just smiles at Mark. That incredible Keira Knightley smile.

Sam and Joanna (and Daniel)

In the original: Recently widowed Daniel (played with a specific set of skills by Liam Neeson) attempts to help navigate the first true love of his young stepson, Sam (Thomas Sangster). The girl he is in love with is a slightly older American girl (Olivia Olson) who’s “the coolest girl in school” and shares the same name as his recently deceased mother, Joanna. Daniel and Sam are hopeless romantics and watch Titanic together, and who’ve “had the shit kicked out of them by love.” They decide to go for a sweeping romantic gesture as well, and Sam proceeds to learn the drums so that he can play in the band accompanying Joanna at the Christmas pageant. It goes well, but she still seemingly doesn’t know who he is. They attempt another romantic gesture as Daniel ushers Sam to the airport to say goodbye before Joanna goes back to America (I think). After an epic chase through airport security and the terminal, Joanna kisses Sam (it turns out she does know his name) and it looks like Sam and Daniel are gonna be just fine.

In mine: I love Liam Neeson. But I think this is another perfect opportunity for a guy/girl switch. I think a dead mother happens way too often in film (I grew up on Disney, every hero and heroine is down a mother) and it feels a little Stuffed in the Fridge. Name another wholesome version of a young boy and the mother figure in his life navigating his first love. This could be it. And I would want Molly Weasley, aka Julie Walters to do it. It’s pretty much the same storyline as the original but now there’s this added exciting layer of storytelling where the mom (step-mom) can’t immediately relate to the boy’s struggle. I think the only other thing I’d fix is Sam being a little less insufferable. My recent rewatches of the film have really tainted any “little kid charm” I thought this role had. Sangster’s a good actor, I take nothing away from him, but it’s a pretty awful role. I would like the kid to be more melodramatic. More one of these smart-ass younger siblings from film and TV. I also would really enjoy it if every time we came back to this story, there have been attempts that we don’t see of Sam talking to Joanna. Julie Walters tells him, “Just talk to her! Girls like being noticed! People like when you take the time to notice them!” and when we revisit them he’s tried it, and she didn’t hear him or something. That’s why it builds to this grand romantic gesture and there’s a foundation to it. Maybe this is where I use Karl instead! Instead of Claudia Schiffer meeting Liam Neeson, it’s Rodrigo Santoro as Hot Dad meeting Julie Walters.

Harry and Karen

In the original: Powerhouses Alan Rickman (Harry) and Emma Thompson (Karen) are our married couple of the movie. Harry is a high-powered boss in charge of whatever Sarah and Karl work at, possibly advertising. Karen is a busy full-time mom. The marriage feels like a settled routine. The two clearly care about each other, despite Karen’s distracted nature and Harry’s grumpiness. Harry’s eye is wandering slightly though. Mia, his secretary, is distractingly eye-catching and also seems to be very actively seducing him. It sadly works, and he goes and buys her a necklace, which Karen sees. On Christmas Eve, the family opens one gift each, Karen excitedly going for the box shaped like the one the necklace was in. It turns out to be a CD of Joni Mitchell, which Karen had explained earlier in the movie was a formative music artist for her younger self. A good gift on any other Christmas, a shattering realization for this one. Karen confronts him that night. It’s a heartbreaking scene and a beautiful performance from both of them. There isn’t much resolution though, as in the epilogue we see that they’ve taken some time apart but have seemingly not made any permanent separation.

In mine: Okay. This is the one that actually set off the entire conversation. We love Emma Thompson. I’m pretty sure she wrote her monologue. We love Alan Rickman. He’s turned despicable characters into rogues with hearts of gold before. We love that they are the true emotional backbone of this movie. But their story is just as lacking as any other. I completely forgot Emma Thompson’s character’s name after rewatching the movie. I had to look it up. I want to see more of their “settled” married life. They’re not so much “in love” anymore as they are mutually bound to each other. It’s not an obligation, and it’s not completely unromantic, it’s just that the relationship has evolved past what we imagine as “lovers.” They are husband and wife. They are a team. And I want to see that dynamic more often. When Karen goes to the funeral, they have a small argument about is Harry going to watch the kids or come along because then they have to find a babysitter. The two of them have a quiet heart-to-heart while they’re both making the papier-mache lobster for their daughter in the pageant. We need to see some more hints of Harry being less grumpy around Karen, and glimpses of how he once was with her. Maybe when they go shopping, he tells her, “Let’s take a detour.” He takes her ice-skating in the middle of the mall instead. They share a wonderful moment privately in public before getting back to their holiday obligations. And here’s the big thing I change: You never see Mia. You never see this stupid secretary and her dumb acting, and her terrible, on-the-nose dialogue (“dark corners, for dark deeds.”) It just ruins the dramatic weight of the story. He’s attracted to this!? Why?! So we never see Mia. Maybe once, Karen calls Harry at the office and we hear Mia pick up. That at least gives us a little hint for later. Maybe it’s even something like, “Harry? I need you to pick up the kids after you leave work today.” “Oh, hi Karen. Sorry, it’s Mia.” “Mia? Oh, I thought I called Harry’s desk directly, sorry.” “No, you did. He’s out right now. Meeting. I’m cleaning up. I’ll give him the message though!” And we don’t see her! We hear her voice, and Karen thinks nothing of this exchange. And for all we ever know, it’s exactly what Mia said. But! All that gets called into question later when we see Karen find the necklace and then later get given the CD. Now we’re as devastated as Karen, and we’re re-contextualizing that little exchange from before! And now that speech comes from an absolutely grounded, broken place. Also, pretty up that necklace for goodness sake. It looks like an arts & crafts project.

And David and Natalee

In the original: And finally, Prime Minister David (Hugh Grant) has just been sworn in (is that what they do in Britain? They’re not sent on a holy quest by the Queen, right?) and is meeting his staff. He finds himself immediately attracted to a junior member of staff named Natalee (Martine McCutcheon) who everyone thinks is fat. And I find that frankly, insane. But it’s a running joke this movie seems to find hilarious. When the President of the United States makes a visit, he makes a move on Natalee that David misreads but causes him to be more assertive at their joint press conference. He gives the inspiring speech of the movie. He distances himself from Natalee until he receives a letter from her saying she loves him. He embarks on a search for her that lands him at the Christmas pageant. That’s good because he’s actually the older brother of Karen and he “never comes to these things!” (The movie is also full of these random little connections. Which I have found annoy me more and more over the years, but that could be a whole separate article.) They share a kiss backstage, which turns out to be onstage. And it’s magic because it’s Hugh Grant.

Before I get to mine, I want to take a quick detour about the big problematic power dynamic in this storyline that really has not aged well. There are other storylines and plot points in this movie that we can quibble about: slight homophobia used as a punchline, some romantic gestures verging on Nice Guy territory, the unaddressed trauma of Sam who falls for a girl with the same name as his mother the same week they bury her… But in terms of modern sensibilities, I have a huge problem with the dramatic beats of this story specifically. Natalee gets assaulted by the President of the United States. Terribly, David’s instinct is simply to move her to a position that’s not in such close proximity to him because he now realizes she’s distracting him and also he decides to read the moment as essentially her fault. Even though she is clearly uncomfortable with the contact, and there is a power dynamic issue, because she’s a junior staffer and he’s… the President! We literally have a real-world version of that scandal! But even more terribly, when they eventually do talk about the incident, Natalee apologizes to David! What! For what! She got assaulted! She apologizes because she realizes that David misread the moment, and she wants him to know that she only has eyes for him. She interpreted it as: “Oh no, I don’t want him to think I initiated or reciprocated because then he won’t be interested in me anymore!” And even more terribly, she’s right! Why else would David move her off her current staff position to a lower profile one? If there’s one lesson to take away from all this it’s that: this is an incorrect premise for a love triangle. This is a poor introduction of conflict for our two lovers. The victimization of a woman should not be seen as grounds for romantic competition. What this story thinks it is, is two men vying for the attention of a woman who turns down one and in so doing gives a false impression to the other, whom she actually cares about. What the story actually is, is a woman getting sexually assaulted by a higher-status man, and the other man, whom she actually cares for, and who actually cares for her, feels rejected that he didn’t get this attention from her instead. Natalee has zero to apologize for, that was not a legitimate romantic entanglement that David should have felt rejected over. Rant over.

In mine: Natalee’s got the chief of staff job. She’s capable, she intelligent, she’s powerful. The two of them privately declare that they don’t have time for love, but admit to themselves they find each other appealing. Through further conversations, they find themselves connecting but are still resistant to admitting anything to each other. The President arrives and the rest of the state staff bicker that the President needs to be put in check a bit because he’s a bully. As a new Prime Minister, David is afraid to step on toes so soon. But privately, he speaks with Natalee who tells him that history isn’t made by playing it safe. By appeasing bullies. It’s by standing up to bullies. He delivers much the same speech as he did, noticeably stealing some lines from Natalee. This puts a wedge between them, as he jokingly says maybe she should be Prime Minister. She says it’s not a bad idea. He wavers a little because he’s not as confident in the role as he thought he’d be. She challenges him to be better. Their story ends with mutual respect, and the beginnings of a possible love connection. We get to see a more interesting workplace romance plot than whatever they were stuck in previous to this.

So there you have it. Is it an absolute fix? Certainly not. I would love more good representation in there, in terms of POC and LGBTQA. The little connections are an intriguing element, but if they’re overdone it feels like the world is too small. Suddenly it’s: “Love Actually is… just these dozen or so people who all know each other,” so I don’t think there’s much else you can do with that. I also think there’s room for interpretation that many of these storylines don’t work out. I would actually really like that. Maybe Joanna has a boyfriend already. Maybe Colin and the British girl don’t work out past that night. There is also a strong argument to be made that many of these storylines could be cut. If I went that way, I would strictly focus on Harry and Karen, David and Natalee, Sam and Daniel, and Sarah. Maybe make them all siblings! Sarah the youngest is a single mom everyone’s trying to marry off; Daniel (well, Julie Walters) is step-mom to Sam and was married to the oldest brother of the family (that could be Liam Neeson); David is Prime Minister so nobody knows if he’s going to make it to Christmas dinner that year; Karen is the oldest daughter and now the oldest of the siblings. Damn, then we could basically do a better version of Family Stone. …Should that be the movie I do next?

So if you’ve read this whole thing, I owe you a hug at the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. Merry Christmas, everyone!