You’ve been watching Love Actually wrong all these years
Ivan Radford | On 20, Nov 2019Reading time: 21 mins
It’s been 16 years since Love Actually first introduced us to Rowan Atkinson’s gift-wrapping, Hugh Grant’s dad dancing and Andrew Lincoln’s doorstepping of Keira Knightley. In that time, Richard Curtis’ rom-com anthology, which borders on self-parody with its filtered view of life in London, has grown from a likeable, if flawed, piece of star-studded fluff to an almost essential piece of pre-Christmas viewing. That’s not just because of the Stockholm Syndrome-like familiarity of seeing the thing on telly over and over again, but because of the way the movie counts down to the big December two-five: it’s an advent calendar in film form, except instead of chocolates behind each door, you get Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson, who are much better than chocolate anyway.
But while we all patiently ration out our advent calendar chocolates every 24 hours, we binge on Love Actually in one two-hour session, missing out on the gradual joy of reliving this modern Christmas classic, bit by bit, in real-time. Like an episode of 24, but with Bill Nighy instead of Kiefer Sutherland.
All these years, you’ve been watching Love Actually wrong. Here’s how to watch it in the correct, chronological, calendar-based order:
5 weeks before Christmas
Day 1 (03:55)
Suggested viewing date: 20th November
Beginning slightly more than a month before Christmas, what better way to get in the festive spirit than seeing Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) record a frankly terrible attempt at a Christmas song? Shoe-horning some extra syllables into Love Is All Around, it’s a solid gold turd that remains one of the best jokes in the film – no wonder Curtis opens with it.
If you‘re in the mood for romance, though, there’s the impossibly attractive prospect of Chiwetel Ejiofor (Peter) and Keira Knightley (Julie) getting hitched – accompanied by a pop-up rendition of All You Need Is Love, arranged by best man Andrew Lincoln (Mark). Their wedding reception introduces us to Kris Marshall’s cameo as a sandwich man, Colin, whose suggestive banter is charming but inappropriate for a workplace – and Laura Linney’s Sarah, who also attends Peter and Julie’s nuptials.
It wouldn’t be a wedding in Curtisland without a funeral, though, and so we get one of those too, just to make sure that box is ticked. And so we’re dropped into a eulogy by Daniel (Liam Neeson) mentioning his secret love of Claudia Shiffer almost immediately – but not before he can have a chat to Emma Thompson’s housewife, Karen, who finds out that her daughter will play a lobster in the school nativity (as you do), just the thing you want to learn after a day at a funeral.
And if all that wasn’t enough before night falls for the first time on screen, we also get to meet Hugh Grant’s Prime Minister, David. The brother of Karen, David’s starting his job after a strangely-timed November election – presumably a snap vote designed to replace the country with everyone’s perfect dream PM. “Hello, David — I mean, sir,” greets one of his staff members, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). “Shit, I can’t believe I just said that. And now I’ve gone and said shit. Twice.”
And, to round the day off with some titillation, we finally drop in on John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page), two body doubles who work in the adult film industry. Oh, and the small matter of Jamie (Colin Firth) discovering that his other half is having an affair with his brother. Poor Colin Firth.
Things to do after watching Day 1 of Love Actually
– Record your own Christmas single
– Sneak up behind someone at church with a trombone
– Watch a prime ministerial debate
– Make a papier-mâché lobster head
Suggested viewing date: 22nd November
After a bumper stocking stuffed with exposition and introductions, take it easy with a second day of seasonal activity, as Billy Mack relaxes at Radio Watford to promote his cash-grab of a track. Nighy snorting and joking about shagging Britney Spears is worth tuning in for alone, but there’s also the fun of meeting Karen’s husband, Harry (Alan Rickman, how we miss thee), who runs a design agency – a design agency that employs secretary Mia (Heike Makatsch), who spends her days flirting with her boss and trying to seduce him with her abnormally long neck. Harry, meanwhile, butts straight into Sarah’s love life, informing her that the whole office knows she’s in love with Karl, the company’s sexy designer. (So much for HR best practice.)
Things to do after watching Day 3 of Love Actually
– Listen to one of Watford’s top radio stations
– Shop online for a turtleneck jumper. It’s not just Mia: everyone in Love Actually has them.
4 weeks before Christmas
Day 6 (21:49)
Suggested viewing date: 25th November
It’s only four weeks until Christmas in Love Actually land, which means you need to be sticking Love Actually on and fast-forwarding to PM David’s cabinet meeting, where they’re mostly discussing biscuits. This is our kind of Prime Minister, folks. “I’m not going to act like a petulant child,” he adds – seriously, Hugh, just take the job – then wonders who he has to sleep with to get some decent Digestives. (Enter Natalie, naturally.)
Sex is on the brain today, with John and Judy filming a sex scene together, and Colin announcing his plans to go to America for Christmas (Wisconsin), just so he can get laid. Karl leaves work that night and she says goodbye timidly, staying at work and then answering the phone to her brother, who is in a home. We can already guess that this story isn’t going to end well – after all, nothing good ever came from working late.
Neeson’s Daniel, on the other hand, is trying to connect with his kid, Sam – yes. that is Thomas Brodie Sangster, aka. the wee kid who will grow up to appear in Game of Thrones. They chat by the River Thames, as he tells his dad that his problem isn’t mourning for his mum, but pining for a girl at school. “I thought it might be something worse,” ventures Neeson’s dad. “Worse than the total agony of being in love?” comes the reply. “No, you’re right,” he reflects, deadpan. “Yeah, total agony.”
Things to do after watching Day 6 of Love Actually
– Eat all the biscuits
– Work late to avoid your office crush
Suggested viewing date: 27th November
Our eighth day starts away from London, for once, as we join Jamie (Colin Firth) in France, where he is moving on from his cheating other half to spend time focusing on his writing instead. Back in the UK, dream PM David is getting to know Martine, who lives in the dodgy end of Wandsworth, and unsubtly trying to find out if she has a boyfriend. (She doesn’t.) Which brings us to one of the best lines in the film, as David turns to a gigantic portrait of Margaret Thatcher on the wall. “Did you have this kind of problem? Of course you did, you saucy minx.” And before the night draws in, there’s just enough time for Sam to fess up about the love of his life: none other than the coolest and most popular girl in school. “Basically, you’re fucked, aren’t you?” jokes Neeson’s dad. High five for encouraging parenting!
Things to do after watching Day 8 of Love Actually
– Go on holiday to France
– Put a painting of Margaret Thatcher in your bedroom
– Talk to it when other people aren’t looking
3 weeks before Christmas
Day 11 (33:55)
Suggested viewing date: 30th November
It’s a Saturday morning, and how do we know? Because Ant & Dec are on telly presenting a kids’ programme that could be SM:TV Live, but sadly isn’t because the world is a cruel place. But there is one good thing we get from life today: the sight of Bill Nighy (Billy offers kids watching at home a “personalised felt tip pen” as a competition prize) writing on a poster of Blue “we’ve got tiny pricks”. “Kids, here’s an important message from your Uncle Bill,” he finishes. “Don’t buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they’ll give you them for free!”
Even more risqué than that advice is Andrew Lincoln’s Mark, who turns out to work at a gallery where an exhibition is currently showing: Christmas Uncovered, mostly consisting of adult photos with private parts covered by Santa hats. Mark’s on the phone to Peter, who springs a surprise call to Julia upon him, as she asks him for a copy of his wedding video he filmed.
Harry, meanwhile, is again lobbying for Sarah to make a move on Karl, before going back to Mia for some flirting – she mentions that she has a friend with a gallery that could be hired for an office Christmas party, full of “dark corners for doing dark deeds”. And presumably hiding how long your neck is.
Things to do after watching Day 11 of Love Actually
– Vandalise a poster of Blue
– Watch repeats of SM:TV Live on YouTube and pine for the 90s
Suggested viewing date: 5th December
Back over in France, Jamie’s meeting his new cleaner to take care of his French cottage during the summer. Her name? Aurelia (Lucia Moniz), and she’s not French, but Portuguese. Which basically means Colin Firth gets to impress us twice over with his terrible foreign language skills. It probably don’t impress Lucia much, though: she’s kind of a big deal, even representing Portugal at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1996.
And in London, Dream PM Hugh Grant is busy entertaining the newly-arrived President of the United States, here represented by Billy Bob Thornton – playing POTUS as a sleazy, but competent politician, which feels almost appealing in comparison to Donald Trump. Their diplomatic talks don’t get very far, but the pair fall out even further in the evening, when David goes to get some documents and returns to the living room to find POTUS kissing Natalie. “I’ve never been able to tie a girl down. I’m not sure politics and dating really go together,” said David earlier. “Really? I’ve never found that,” replied POTUS. And yet we’d still possibly prefer him to Trump.
Things to do after watching Day 15 of Love Actually
– Watch Portugal’s 1996 Eurovision entry:
Suggested viewing date: 6th December
With his UK visit concluded, it’s press conference time for the PM and Prez, aka. the perfect excuse for Richard Curtis to try his hand at The West Wing, with David delivering the kind of rousing, feel-good monologue that simply doesn’t happen in real life politics anymore. So here is in full to savour:
“I love that word ‘relationship’, it covers all manner of sins, doesn’t it? I fear this has become a bad relationship, a relationship based on the President taking exactly what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to [pause as he looks at Natalie] Britain. We may be a small country but we’re a great one too. A country of Shakespeare, Churchill, The Beatles, Sean Connery, Love Actually, Harry Potter. David Beckham’s right foot. David Beckham’s left foot, come to that! And a friend who bullies us is no longer a friend.”
Hugh Grant as PM is so good, in fact, that Love Actually devotes this entire day to him, only briefly segueing to Emma Thompson’s Karen, as she speaks on the phone to her brother to congratulate him on his speech. She also asks Harry which Barbie doll is least offensive to give their daughter, “the one that looks like a transvestite, or the one that looks like a dominatrix”.
In 10 Downing St, meanwhile, Hugh Grant as PM is doing this:
Things to do after watching Day 16 of Love Actually
– Dance around your house in the Hugh Grant style
2 weeks before Christmas
Day 21 (44:48)
Suggested viewing date: 11th December
Jump forward to what we reckon is almost a week later and Aurelia accidentally sends Jamie’s manuscript blowing in the wind into the nearby lake – because the rule of Chekhov’s Colin Firth dictates that Colin Firth cannot be in a story without him getting topless in a lake.
The result is a rather adorably written scene that sees Aurelia jump into the water too, as they both warm up afterwards and repeatedly fail to communicate clearly, half-repeating each other in different languages. “I’ll name one of the characters after you,” offers Jamie, as a reward for her help.” “Maybe you could name one of the characters after me,” she replies in Portuguese. “Or give me 50 per cent of the profits?” “Or I could give you 5 per cent of the profits!” he offers in English. By the time he’s driving her home again, they’re actually looking at each other for the first time, rather than staring straight ahead at the road. For a film that’s so unsubtle, there are some cute little touches here.
Speaking of unsubtle things, Julia turns up on Mark’s doorstep (with banoffee pie – Love Actually is full of people bringing other people food or drink) and asks to see his videos from the wedding… all of which turn out to be of her. He walks out, embarrassed, leaving her alone in his flat. How is she meant to leave now? We never find out. But she doesn’t have keys. So is he happy for his flat just to be left open and unsecured while he’s off angsting the afternoon away? And who chose to put Dido on the soundtrack?
The evening ends with the PM asking Chief of Staff Annie to relocate Natalie to another department. Poor Martine McCutcheon.
Things to do after watching Day 21 of Love Actually
– Learn to speak Portuguese
– Eat banoffee pie
– Listen to Dido
– Go around videotaping your mate’s new wife because you’re a bit disturbingly obsessed
Suggested viewing date: 12th December
“She’s American and she’s going back to America and that’s the end of my life as I know it,” declares Sam this morning, as he talks to his dad. His father’s response? Kate and Leo. Yes, they watch Titanic together on the sofa as comfort viewing, which is basically the best start to a day off school ever. “Do you trust me?” “Yes.” “Fool!” Adorable.
Back in 10 Downing St, Daniel’s new coffee comes courtesy of Natalie’s replacement, who hasn’t brought him chocolate-covered biscuits – a sign, beyond doubt, that Natalie was the one for him, after all.
Jamie, meanwhile, is planning to head back to London sooner than intended, so he drives Aurelia back to town for the final time – and, while they can’t communicate properly still, they do share a brief kiss. Because love knows no language, right, guys? Guys?
Things to do after watching Day 22 of Love Actually
– Watch Titanic
– With chocolate biscuits
Suggested viewing date: 13th December
After a brief sighting of it, we finally get a look at Billy Mack’s complete music video for Christmas Is All Around, which is as cheesy and sexist as you would expect from a music industry satire. And it gives Sam, who watches it in a shop window, the inspiration he needs to impress the girl he likes: join the band performing in the school nativity concert. Unfortunately for the neighbours and everyone else in a 50-metre radius, he decides to learn the drums.
Things to do after watching Day 23 of Love Actually
– Learn to play the drums
Suggested viewing date: 14th December
The office Christmas party is here! And Sarah’s getting in the mood, because she puts up a teeny-tiny Christmas tree on her desk. Mia’s party idea goes down a treat, as everyone gathers at Mark’s gallery, and she jumps at the chance to nab Harry alone, dressed in a red devil outfit. Because Love Actually is nothing if not blatantly obvious – that, or Richard Curtis must have had some seriously scary visits from Santa as a child.
Turn Me On by Norah Jones comes on, just as Karl plucks up the courage to ask Sarah to dance, and, in case the soundtrack didn’t give it away, they head back to hers, where Laura Linney adorably dances around in celebration. “Come upstairs in 10 seconds,” she tells him, mysteriously, providing a textbook example of how to clean up a messy room when you’ve got your crush over. Things get interrupted by her phone, though, and we now realise why. “I’m not quite sure it’s going to be possible to get the Pope on the phone tonight,” she tells her troubled brother, who is in some kind of care home. “But yes, I’m sure he’s very good at exorcism.”
Their making out is expertly cut with Harry and Karen in the bedroom, as they get ready for bed in an even less amorous fashion. (“Mia’s very pretty,” says Emma Thompson. “Is she?” asks Alan Rickman, fooling nobody. “You know she is, darling,” comes the chiding reply. Emma Thompson rules.)
Billy Mack, meanwhile, is on Parkinson (yes, really), which David is watching on the Number 10 telly. He knows how to party on a Saturday night. (Did we mention how much we love Hugh Grant as Prime Minister?)
Things to do after watching Day 24 of Love Actually
– Go on YouTube and watch all the Parkinson highlights you can find
– Learn how to do an exorcism
– Give Laura Linney a phone call; she always picks up
1 week before Christmas
Day 28 (1:17:30)
Suggested viewing date: 18th December
ONLY ONE WEEK UNTIL CHRISTMAS. Mia’s in a festive mood, flirting with Harry at work again – and he goes out shopping during his lunch break, meeting up with Karen. Mia’s all like “what are you getting me for Christmas”, to which the correct response is “a new job if you continue to harass me”, but Harry, like an idiot, decides to buy an expensive gold necklace. The good news is that it introduces us to Rowan Atkinson’s shop assistant at Selfridges, who steals the whole show with a performance that is almost entirely physical.
Colin, meanwhile, is crashing at his mate, Tony’s, until he goes to Wisconsin, Jack invites Judy for a drink (she says yes), and Sam is rehearsing hard after school for his drumming gig. How he got in the school band without knowing how to drum already is a question to be answered another day. Karen, meanwhile, sneaks a peak at Harry’s Christmas present from Selfridges – and gets very excited about receiving a necklace.
Things to do after watching Day 28 of Love Actually
– Snoop around your house for hidden Christmas presents
– Learn how to play the drums
– Gift. Wrap. Everything.
Suggested viewing date: 21st December
“My goodness, this is a very big fish!” exclaims Colin Firth, as he spends his final days before Christmas learning how to speak Portuguese. He’s rivalled for Best Line of the Film, though, by Kris Marshall’s Colin, who heads to the airport and shouts out to Tony across the departures lounge: “Here comes Colin Frissell! And he’s got a big knob!” Fast forward several hours and it’s nighttime in Milwaukee, where he winds up in a bar with January Jones and Elisha Cuthbert.
While they deck the halls with balls of something, Karen and co. are down by the Christmas tree, inexplicably breaking all the festive rules by opening a present early – only for her to realise that, yes, that necklace wasn’t for her after all. Instead, she’s got a Joni Mitchell CD (as if she doesn’t already have it), which leads to a genuinely heartbreaking sequence involving the song Both Sides Now and the realisation that even a husband played by Alan Rickman can be a total waste of space. (We also see Mia, who is over the moon with her new piece of jewellery – and, in a bizarrely unintentional cut, almost looks like she has photos of Harry and his family on her dressing table.)
Meanwhile, Sam and Daniel are reminiscing about Daniel’s love of Claudia Schiffer (no points for guessing who makes a cameo appearance later)…
Things to do after watching Day 31 of Love Actually
– Listen to Joni Mitchell in a room on your own
– Alternatively, fly to America
Day 34 (1:28:00)
Suggested viewing date: 24th December
Yes! It’s Christmas Eve at last and Billy Mack is already preparing for his Christmas No. 1 announcement, as he listens to the Radio 1 chart at his own festive party. Naturally, Elton John calls and invites him over – and Billy gladly leaves his poor manager, Joe, behind. (He later to returns to his manager’s flat, to deliver a speech that only Bill Nighy could deliver: “Here I am, mid-50s and without knowing it, I’ve spent most of my adult life with a chubby employee. And as much as it grieves me to say it, it might be that the people I love is… in fact, you.”)
A more upbeat time is had by John and Judy, who are saying goodbye after a fully clothed date – and she informs him happily that all she wants for Christmas is him. Which leaves John jumping for joy (literally) on her doorstep.
Karl and Sarah wish each other Merry Christmas, as they leave the office after a late finish. She then goes to her brother, Michael, and they hug and exchange gifts – a bittersweet ending if ever there was one.
Speaking of which, Mark rings Juliet’s doorbell and carries out the creepiest/sweetest (depending on your viewpoint) ritual of showing written messages of adoration to her, while playing a recording of carol singers. Er, as you do. “Enough now,” he tells himself, as he walks off afterwards. You wonder why he didn’t think that sooner.
Jamie, meanwhile, arrives at his family’s house, drops off presents, and then promptly flees to fly to Portugal and find Aurelia. (All together now: “I hate Uncle Jamie!”) A sweet proposal scene follows in a restaurant where she works as a waitress – “Father is about to sell Aurelia as a slave to this Englishman,” announces her sister – and they communicate in each other’s badly-learned language. Awww.
And, in the film’s bravura bit of narrative interweaving, David opens his Christmas cards at Number 10, before he finds a card from Natalie – and decides to head out to the dodgy end of Wandsworth to find her house. Pretending to be carol singing to avoid awkwardness (his driver’s booming baritone is one of the best things in this film), he works his way down the street until he knocks on her door. Which, as luck would have it, is just as they’re heading to the local nativity, where Karen’s daughter is playing a lobster. (Third lobster, to be exact.) And so they converse in the car on the way there (on either side of a papier-mâché octopus – “eight is a lot of legs, David”) and watch the whole thing from behind the scenes.
That, of course, also includes Sam’s drumming, as Joanna sings All I Want for Christmas – and points right at him when she says the climactic second person pronoun… And then points at everyone else in the audience. (Thomas Brodie Sangster’s increasingly angry face at this point is a delight.)
While David and Natalie get discovered on stage snogging, Karen and Harry walk out and have a serious conversation about his stupid necklace purchase – but before we can really wallow in yet another boldly downbeat conclusion, we’re whisked away by Daniel and Sam to the airport, as they try to catch Joanna before she flies back home to America. (Another contender for Line of the Film: “Let’s go get the shit kicked out of us by love.”) Enter Rowan Atkinson, whose ever-delaying presence (he was, at one point, going to be a guardian angel-like figure) stalls the security guard at check-in just long enough for Sam to run past, like he’s in a flipping romantic comedy or something, and profess his feelings. And what does she do? She only ruddy kisses him, making sure that we end the movie on a fantastic high note.
It’s largely this candy-cane conclusion that sticks in the mind when it comes to Love Actually, and that rewarding ending miraculously manages to redeem all the dubious things that have gone before. It’s only when you’ve sat through the whole thing, one day at a time, that you truly appreciate the achievement of that finale. Yes, corny Beach Boys track and everything. Most satisfying of all, though, is the knowledge that your advent calendar tradition is complete for another year.
Things to do after watching Day 34 of Love Actually
– Have a Merry Christmas.
Love Actually is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.