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Christmas, British style

In just 10 years, Love Actually has become another holiday tradition

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Love Actually celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. And this multi-character, mistletoe-strewn look at love has a lot to celebrate.

Back in 2003, the movie opened in limited release and then built up some solid box office. At the time, writer-director Richard Curtis didn't feel it was much of a success. Critical reaction was mixed. Guardian film writer Peter Bradshaw memorably said that the whole thing was 'like watching a 135-minute trailer for a film called Love Actually."

A decade on and Love Actually has a miraculous afterlife as a Christmas film. Some fans bring it out seasonally, along with the holiday decorations and the mandarin oranges. Love Actually is like a cult movie soaked in eggnog.

If you're determined to be Grinchy, there's a lot to pick at right from the get-go, including a shameless 9/11 reference before the two-minute mark. But somehow those twinkling Christmas lights wrap even the sappiest subplots in a transforming glow.

My own festive feelings for the film are complicated.

Here's what I love about Love Actually:

-- All movies are better with Bill Nighy in them, especially when he's being louche. And his broke, aging rocker Billy Mack is about as louche as it gets.

-- It's hard to resist the gravitational pull of that massive Brit cast. Many of the actors have gone on to become better known for other things, so that I now watch the movie thinking: How did Snape get a wife who likes Joni Mitchell? Why is that nice hobbit doing pornos? Will Sheriff Rick get eaten by zombies in his big cue-card scene?

-- Like all romantic comedies, Love Actually asks us to take a loosey-goosey approach to realism. And once we've thrown plausibility out the window, it's hard not to enjoy a topsy-turvy universe where floppy-haired Hugh Grant could be the prime minister of Great Britain and Billy Bob Thornton could be the president of the United States.

-- There are some perfect small moments, like Laura Linney and Rodrgio Santoro's sex scene, which is sweet and awkward and much interrupted by telephone calls, or Rowan Atkinson's obsequious, obsessive gift wrapping ("Tis but the work of a moment").

-- Or the best scene in the film: Emma Thompson soldiering on through a family Christmas Eve even though she has just discovered her husband is cheating.

-- Love Actually also provides a handy personality test, based on which of the 10 storylines somebody likes best. I'm all about the melancholy, middle-aged Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson storyline, so I could never find love with anyone whose favourite plot involves that hapless British bloke who goes to Milwaukee looking for hot American girls, or that precocious lovelorn child with a head like a pencil eraser.

Here's what I hate about Love Actually:

-- Keira Knightley being all sparkly ("Brilliant! Well done, you!") and doing that thing she does with her mouth. Though maybe I'm just bitter because she seems to be over her quota for handsome men, having both Chiwetel Ejiofor and Andrew Lincoln in love with her.

-- Colin Firth doing the cheered-on public proposal thing for a woman he's never had a proper conversation with. ("Bello... Bella?")

-- Even taking into account that love isn't fair, there's something heartbreaking about lovely Laura Linney getting the one compulsory sad story. Even though she draws the script's short straw, she takes hold of it with restrained Linney-like dignity -- which makes it all even sadder! Pass the Christmas Kleenex box.

Here's where love and hate get tipsy together on mulled wine:

-- Any romcom ensemble movie is about taking the good with the bad.

-- And it's the same with Christmas, when every happy family gathering seems to have a drunk uncle (or that family's version of a drunk uncle). We may have some ideal holiday in our head, but our actual holiday will involve supermarket fruitcake and muzak versions of Santa, Baby, and nativity plays with lobsters in them (as Emma Thompson notes).

So maybe Love Actually is kind of like brussels sprouts or kitschy tree ornaments. We don't love the movie because it's perfect. We love it because it's familiar, because it's comforting, and because we do this every year.

The movie ends up being a bit like Billy Mack's holiday song, a Christmassed-up version of Love Is All Around that he cheerfully declares is crap. Like that song, Love Actually is cheesy and commercial... and all but impossible to get out of your head.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2013 D14

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