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LOVE ACTUALLY (article first published : 2003-11-30)

Love Actually is like a great, big Christmas hamper jam-packed to overflowing with goodies, and tied up with a bright ribbon and glossy baubles. But, again like many hamper treats, it's sickeningly high in sugar and offers too much of a good thing.

The film marks the directing debut of Richard Curtis, writer of Bridget Jones's Dairy, Notting Hill and Three Weddings and a Funeral but is not as memorable as any of these delights. It's a cluttered and episodic new romantic comedy which has been carefully contrived to generate smiles and sighs from hopeless romantics among us, however artificial its many characters at times. And, however implausible, most of their situations.

But it is so flecked with fun and occasional moments of cleverness, so sprinkled with genuine wit at times, and it features so great an ensemble cast, that one is prepared to forgive it its heavy contrivances, its mountain of saccharine, and ride its rollercoaster of goodwill. By so doing you will find several solid laughs amid the heaps of corn and sentiment, lots to like.

A la The Player and Magnolia, we have here several stories that run parallel and sometimes connect. All unfold in a snowy London, atwinkle with fairylights, in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Most of the scenarios are preposterously unlikely - like the cool new British Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) falling for his perky, Cockney tea lady (Martine McCutcheon), or the upper-class man about town (Colin Firth) falling for the Portuguese maid ((Lucina Moniz) he hires at a cottage getaway where he plans to write a novel. There's also the tale of a nerdy, dishevelled kid (Thomas Sangster) who develops a crush on the school babe that ends in an absurd chase through an airport that borders on parody.

The film revolves around love in all its many guises - between lovers, siblings, family and friends. It's about temptation and yearning, about love shaken, lost and also gained. The main problem with the movie is that there are simply too many characters and, in spite of a two-hour-plus running time, insufficient time to do them all justice.

I'd have liked to have more, for instance, of the story which has Laura Linney cast as a mousey office worker whose life is constantly distured by her retarded brother and who has the hots for another loner, who just happens to be a hunk (Rodrigo Santoro) with model looks to floor any woman within sight.

Also among the stellar cast are Emma Thompson (great as ever) as a woman who discovers her husband (Alan Rickman) may be having an affair; Liam Neeson as a widower trying to connect with his young stepson; and Billy Bob Thornton as a smooth and womanising American President. Then there's Keira Knightley as a young woman who discovers a secret about the best friend of her husband, who makes porn films.

Comic relief comes from Rowan (Mr Bean) Atkinson as a meticulous and slow store assistant and, more so, a wonderful Bill Nighy in a role very different to that he plays as a writer with block in I Capture the Castle. Here he's a flamboyant, ageing pop star fighting to get his new single to number one on the UK chart for Christmas, It's a cheesey remake of Love is All Around, with lyrics changed to reflect Christmas.

The film is set over the silly season and Curtis intentino is clearly to highlight the silliness, early signposting coming with the 70s pop corn hit, Bay City Rollers' Bye Bye Baby, being played at a funeral and then at a wedding recpetion.

Love Actually is lighter than a string of tinsel and sweeter than the richest almond icing on a fruit cake. Sit through it with that in mind, suspend belief and it should all be a frothy treat. Rating: 7/10 Billy Suter




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