Partisan Christmas Cinema: LOVE ACTUALLY (2003) – A Fairytale in Downing St

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

It would be fair to say that Richard Curtis’ crowd pleaser Love Actually is not hard hitting political discourse, but one of its central plot threads does warrant closer examination.

Curtis’ film is a loose-knit, Altman-esque character piece under the central umbrella of ‘love’, mostly involving Curtis’ traditional retinue of cloyingly middle class Londoners living in a fantasy version of Britain’s capital where everyone has money, time to navel-gaze, and doesn’t worry about laws such as breaching airport security gates and things like that. It is, simply, a load of sickeningly twee nonsense inflated, bizarrely, into some kind of totemic Christmas film that only humbugs suggest might not just be rubbish, but also contain numerous creepy plots and almost sociopathic characters.

You only have to look at Andrew Lincoln wooing Keira Knightley with cue cards on the doorstep of the house she shares not only with her boyfriend, but his best friend.

Leaving that aside, there is one plot line in Love Actually that bears looking at, given outside of Emma Thompson’s genuinely moving performance as the wife of a cheater, it probably stands as the only thread in the film that is easy to stomach: the romance between Hugh Grant’s incumbent British Prime Minister and Martine McCutcheon’s cockney Downing Street tea girl. There is a charm about their characters that belies the rest of the film, even if it bears almost zero reality with anything else in British politics, bar the thinnest of tangential nods and winks to both the Blairite and Bush eras – fitting as the film was made and is set during their tenures, and at the point tensions were fraying.

Love Actually might here be political fantasy, but it has one foot in post-9/11 reality.

Pop quiz, hotshot. Has there ever been a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in office who had never taken a wife?

The answer is yes.

Ted Heath, in the role from 1970-1974, was a confirmed bachelor, as was Arthur Balfour, in office from 1902 to 1905, and Bonar Law between 1922 and 1923 was a widower, so there is precedent for Grant’s PM David (surname unknown) entering Downing Street after a successful election with pomp and ceremony promising household staff an easier ride as he has “No nappies, no teenagers, no scary wife.” This is a clear joke at the expense of the Blair’s, who had their fourth child Leo during Tony Blair’s first tenure as PM in 2000, and a reference to Cherie Blair’s perceived bite as his wife. Yet at the same time, David is Blair; young, more handsome than most of his predecessors, quite down to earth and one suspects, though the politics is never made explicit, centre left. Given how the crowds are cheering him into Downing Street, one senses he’s not exactly a Tory.

David nevertheless immediately meets the sweet tea girl Natalie, played with homely cockney warmth by McCutcheon (best known at this point, as she remains now, for playing the abused, tragic figure of Tiffany Mitchell on EastEnders during the late ‘90s and later launched a fairly successful music career), and falls in love with her like a bolt from the blue. In classic Hugh Grant fashion, he bumbles around being awkward around her, never admitting his feelings, learning she has a psychologically abusive ex-boyfriend (who sounds a lot like Grant Mitchell, in perhaps another meta reference) and lives in the rough part of the same suburb his sister (Emma Thompson’s character) resides in. Curtis attempts to suggest David has struggled to find romance, which would be easier to swallow if he didn’t look like Hugh Grant!

The point is clear though: this is a mild-mannered, pleasant Prime Minister in love with the tea lady!

His nature becomes key to an impending state visit from the current American President and his cabinet are concerned he’ll be walked over by his demands: “There’s a very strong feeling in the party we mustn’t allow ourselves to be bullied from pillar to posts, like the last government.”

This feels like a pointed reference to the Bush Administration following 9/11 and how Dubya leant on Blair significantly to back him, despite U.N. reticence, in sending troops after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and it’s worth remembering that Love Actually arrived at the end of 2003 and the year Blair joined forces with Bush in working to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime by invading Iraq, on the hunt for non-existent weapons of mass destruction. David, however, aligns with Blair on this issue too, refusing to challenge the President initially. “Let’s not forget that America is the most powerful country in the world. I’m not going to act like a petulant child.” he tells a disappointed cabinet, who clearly want him to stand up to the bullish American administration.

Curtis seems to be displaying anti-American sentiment in his portrayal of the President, as played by a suave Billy Bob Thornton. He has less in common with the corn-fed middle-American zealotry of Bush and more with the metropolitan charm of Bill Clinton, except with a hawkish disposition. The issues they discuss are never specific but the President takes a hardline that David seems powerless against, initially. “I’m sorry if our line was firm – there’s no point tiptoeing around today, and then just disappointing you for four years. I have plans and I plan to see them through.” the President affirms.

The tone changes, and David finds that political backbone, only when the President places Natalie in an uncomfortable position, sexually harassing her when the PM is out of the room. This is after the very Clintonian comment on first seeing her. “My goodness, that’s a pretty little son of a bitch. Did you see those pipes?” It is tactfully avoided by David, not just because he’s in love with her but also as a more traditional gentlemen, the President’s open misogyny is unpalatable. Though David doesn’t acquit himself all that well subsequently when he quietly has Natalie fired (or, as he says, “redistributed”, so he doesn’t have to deal with his feelings for her that were compromised and complicated by the President’s own overtures.

It helps David find a level of backbone in a press conference where he shows a British resolve in public against the President he was unable to find in private, after the President—confident he has gotten his way with the new PM, someone malleable—mentions the classic, vaunted ‘special relationship’ between their countries, a staple of Anglo-American politics since they worked to destroy the fascist threat of WW2.

“I love that word “relationship”. Covers all manner of sins, doesn’t it? I fear that this has become a bad relationship. A relationship based on the President taking what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to, erm… Britain.” Could this be Curtis channeling how Blair might have felt with Bush around the same time? Frustrated at Britain, dwarfed by the unipolar strength of America turning outward, furiously, after the shock of 9/11 challenged it’s very identity, playing second fiddle to their younger sibling? That’s the inference. Curtis might tap a brace of mawkish nationalism that sounds more Boris Johnson than Blair as the speech ends but his message is clear: boorish American sleaze is the tipping point for British resolve. One wonders how Curtis might write a Trump-presidential avatar these days!

Love Actually chooses not to focus, subsequently, on this commentary about the special relationship and dials in on the Christmas romantic fairytale, as David decides that love for Natalie conquers all, risking his own personal safety and the established etiquette of being Prime Minister to pursue the woman he loves and charm her, very publicly, in front of a Christmas children’s performance. It’s about as believable as David dancing around Downing Street to ‘Jump (For My Love)’ by The Pointer Sisters.

That, ultimately, is what the film concerns. The romantic political fantasy of a dashing British leader who falls in love with the beautiful commoner; indeed McCutcheon also successfully played Eliza Doolittle in a stage musical of My Fair Lady, a similar part in some respects. Natalie doesn’t need teaching diction and deportment but she is from another world, with Love Actually selling the fantasy that love conquers all – class, systems and indeed the overpowering politics of American society, sexual and otherwise.

You could only do this with a Blair-incarnation, however, and probably at this period of time. At one point, lovestruck, David asks the portrait near his desk of an infamous former Prime Minister. “Did you have this kind of problem? Of course you did, you saucy minx”. The portrait is of Margaret Thatcher. It’s probably Richard Curtis’ best joke in the movie. That’s also his politics. Maybe he is a Tory after all.

At the end of the day, it’s all love, actually.

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