Love Actually’s problematic relationships: a definitive ranking

19 December 2019
By Fashion Quarterly

It’s Christmas, and at Christmas you tell the truth.

It’s Christmas, and at Christmas you tell the truth.

To paraphrase Creepy Mark with the Signs, it’s Christmas, and at Christmas you tell the truth – so what could be more festive than picking ethical holes in the tangled web of relationships that make up Richard Curtis’s 2003 ensemble rom-com, Love Actually?

In honour of your annual yuletide re-watching, we’ve ranked the film’s pairings – the ones that work, the ones that don’t, the platonic ones and the ones that might have been – based on how problematic, ill-conceived and just downright throw-Kettle-Chips-at-your-screen frustrating they are, starting with the most heart-warming and going downhill from there.

Love Actually: the ranking:

Sam and Daniel

“Let’s get the sh*t kicked out of us by love!” Such is the rallying cry of Love Actually‘s loveliest relationship: the one that unfolds between Sam and his step-dad, Daniel (as played by Liam Neeson) after the former loses his mum and the latter loses his wife. With a little bit of help from Kate and Leo (courtesy of the ‘I’m flying!’ scene from Titanic), this is A grade Richard Curtis schmaltz – and while both parties eventually find love (with Joanna and actual Claudia Schiffer respectively) it’s their charming relationship that comes out on top.


Ant and Dec

It’s a monumental injustice that Ant and Dec, arguably the most enduring platonic love story of the modern age, didn’t get a full Love Actually story line of their own. Though their screen time may be negligible, ‘Ant or Dec’ prove that the combined power of their bromance is enough to diffuse disaster when Billy Mack drops some F-bombs in a live interview. And if that isn’t love, actually, I don’t want to know what is.

Sam and Joanna

What could be more endearing than the “total agony” of Sam’s crush on Joanna, who “everyone worships because she’s heaven”? He’s just an emotionally intense 10-year-old boy, standing in front of a girl, trying to find love through a mutual appreciation of Mariah Carey and a casual attitude to airport security. This being the Richard Curtis universe, he succeeds – and for once, we’re willing to let the improbability of Sam’s Heathrow escapade slide, just because his tiny happy face is the true meaning of Christmas.

John and Judy

It’s only upon your fifteenth consecutive viewing that you’ll finally realise just how naked body doubles John and Just Judy fit into Love Actually‘s festive spider web: their film is being produced by Tony, Colin’s disparaging friend. His story line feels like it could form the basis of a charming – if NSFW – Christmas advert. Plus, it says a lot about this film that the line ‘All I want for Christmas … pregnant pause… is YOU’ doesn’t even register on Love Actually‘s exponential scale of festive cheese.

Natalie and David

There’s enough fat phobia in the films of Richard Curtis to inspire a whole graduate thesis, but let’s not get into the weird body-shaming of Martine McCutcheon here, because the tentative romance between Natalie and David the Prime Minister is Love Actually‘s beating heart. On paper, it’s another workplace relationship with a blatantly unbalanced power dynamic but eventually, this one plays out as charming rather than creepy (largely because this is Hugh Grant in bumbling Notting Hill mode, with added meme-able dancing, rather than full Bridget Jones sleaze). Shout out to papier maché octopus child, the ultimate third wheel and true hero of Love Actually.

Billy Mack and his manager

The bromance between ageing pop star Billy Mack and his ‘old, fat manager’. But as the one story line that prioritises platonic friendship over, say, obsessively stalking your best friend’s wife from a distance, or mounting a harassment campaign against your colleague, Bill and his pal provide some light-hearted relief – all while providing multiple name-drops for the premier boy band of early Noughties Britain, Blue.

Peter and Juliet

Peter and Juliet are that couple. Young and privileged,  yet still try to spin the myth that they’re struggling creative types through their lo-fi sartorial choices (baker boy hats, Etsy-ish wedding dresses…) If Instagram had existed in fictional 2001, these two would’ve been insufferable (and would’ve definitely deployed a wedding hashtag on the big day). These two are so wrapped up in their soft-focus White Company and Waitrose lifestyle that they’ve neglected to notice that Peter’s best mate is a Nice Guy about to go nuclear – they’re not problematic so much as really, actually tedious.

Sarah and Karl

Where to start with Sarah and Karl, yet another of the film’s many couples who we’re supposed to view as viable, despite neither party having ever bothered to speak to the other – in this case, for two years, seven months, three days and I suppose, what, two hours? When enigmatic chief designer Karl and knitwear aficionado Sarah do eventually get together, things don’t exactly go to plan: as it turns out, Karl doesn’t just look like a Ken doll but has the emotional capacity of one, too, fleeing when it emerges that Sarah has a brother who’s mentally ill. That said, did she really have to pick up the phone a second time?

Jamie and Aurelia

The Jamie-Aurelia relationship is essentially the incarnation of a Pinterest quote telling us that love needs no language to flourish. So, what could be more romantic than a story line where neither character actually understands what the other is saying, while one is quite literally the other’s domestic drudge? It’s only when – in a male-gaze inversion of Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy pond-dipping – Aurelia jumps into a lake that Jamie starts to take any notice of his cleaner, who’s essentially contracted to laugh at his terrible jokes and admire his knitwear. Admittedly, the proposal scene has its redeeming qualities, but the whole set-up is probably less progressive than Pride and Prejudice itself.

Colin and the American girls

A story line where the BT advert bloke lives out the British male delusion that all American women find them (and their gosh-darn-adorable accents) categorically irresistible: what could possibly go wrong? In the scenes where Colin, an adult man with all the urges – and social graces – of a 13-year-old boy, heads across the Atlantic, Love Actually becomes Coyote Ugly as directed by Richard Curtis: January Jones et al deserve so much better.

Mia and Harry

How could you do that to Emma Thompson? The Harry and Mia pairing is one of the most frustrating plot lines in this frustratingly plotted film: like Andrew Lincoln’s Mark, sexy-secretary-trope-gone-rogue Mia behaves in a way that’s borderline sociopathic yet still seems to charm the hapless Harry into buying her an intricately wrapped necklace. It can’t be a coincidence that she turns up to the Christmas do with distinctly un-festive devil horns: Mia and Harry are the undisputed villains of the piece.

Mark and Juliet

If the technology had been available at the dawn of the millennium, Mark would’ve been the guy who slides into the Instagram inboxes of women who’ve swiped past him on Tinder, asking them why they’ve rejected his digital advances. This being 2001, he’s forced to make do with hand-made signs and a shaky video montage of Keira Knightley’s perfect face in extreme close-up. Borderline psychopathic behaviour, you might think – and yet we’re expected to believe that Juliet somehow finds this behaviour mildly endearing, despite admitting that Mark has never properly spoken to her.

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