Sweet Agonies of Affection

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A Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) rattles lonesomely around 10 Downing Street, mooning over his pretty tea lady (Martine McCutcheon). A trashed rocker (Bill Nighy, in a great comic turn) tries to find his old adoring audience with a ghastly Christmas song. A cuckolded writer (Colin Firth) falls in love with his housekeeper (Lucia Moniz) but can't communicate with her: she speaks only Portuguese, he only English. A shy office worker (Laura Linney) is too tongue tied and tragically preoccupied with her mentally ill brother to consummate her passion for the hunk at the neighboring computer. A recently widowed dad (Liam Neeson) tries to reach out to his love-struck 10-year-old stepson. And that's less than half the cast of writer-director Richard Curtis' epic romantic comedy, Love Actually.

As you can see, a lot of Love Actually's humor derives from the fact that people are struck dumb by their passions. But as he proved with his script for Four Weddings and a Funeral, Curtis has a deft hand with multiple stories. And as he showed in writing Notting Hill and co-writing Bridget Jones's Diary, he has an acute sense of the desperate needs that underlie our often comically deflected longings. In his comedies people always act improbably, but they are full of a sort of fierce wistfulness too. They will eventually go to extraordinary lengths to find romantic fulfillment. Thus Grant's PM finds himself singing carols on Christmas Eve to bratty children. A horny, socially inept waiter (Kris Marshall) flies all the way to Wisconsin hoping for the sex he can't get in London and, of all things, finds it. A couple of movie stand-ins repeatedly get naked for the cameraman, boredly discuss London traffic and don't confess their love until they get their clothes on.


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On the other hand, several characters besides Linney's overly devoted sister do not get everything they want. For although Alan Rickman's emotionally constricted businessman does consummate his affair with his nastily manipulative secretary, it does not mean all ends well. Indeed, you could say the wife he betrays (Emma Thompson) carries the film's heaviest emotional weight. She's brave and — because Thompson is such a wise, fine actress — utterly winning in her devastation.

Her work does not dim the general merriment; it simply colors it with a touch of heartfelt reality. But enough of Curtis' other lovably crazed characters do succeed in finding love in all the unlikely places that you leave the theater with your heart humming happily. He has his dark — well, darkish — side under control. Which is to say that he is an Englishman, well practiced in masking pain and absurdity and descents into sheer goofiness with mannerly behavior, sly irony and stiff upper lips. Don't get me wrong: Love Actually is not a black or even a particularly bleak comedy. But it does remind us — sometimes with a winning, unpolished awkwardness — that the pursuit of love is a game that is as dangerous as it is exhilarating.