“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport." It's the first line of opening narration in the movie Love Actually. "Often, it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there."
It's not just the opener but also the essence of the film, the 2003 British romantic comedy that has become a holiday classic.
In the decade since Hugh Grant gave that speech, Love Actually has become an unlikely cult Christmas hit — and one that holds a special place for my family and the movie's fans worldwide.
Actually begins five weeks before Christmas. We're in London, meeting one set of protagonists before bouncing to the next — a newly married couple; a new prime minister (Grant); a novelist. The movie gradually leads up to Christmas Day by jumping among seven or so plots, all loosely connected. (The novelist goes to the wedding, along with a woman who works at a design firm, and the owner of the firm's wife is the prime minister's sister; Wikipedia has a flow chart.) The plots vary, comedy to love story to tragedy.
It's the kind of storytelling that's difficult to get right, and the film had more than unconventional structure working against it. British media wasn't yet trendy stateside. The reviews weren't bad but weren't raving; if I had been a critic then, I would have passed it by. For me, it was saved by my parents.
My parents first saw Actually by accident. Their first choice movie sold out, and my mom said they should try a comedy instead. The rest is history. Actually remains the one rom-com my dad loves. My parents watch it every year at Christmas, and later I joined the viewing. The movie is our unifier, through good and bad Decembers, and I can't imagine a holiday season without it. This year, my parents bought me my own copy to take to college (and life after).
If you haven't seen Actually, you've probably seen one of its imitators. The movie has spawned a sub-genre copying the "many intertwining plots" treatment, and most have critically and commercially bombed. Only Actually has gotten the genre it invented just right, and anyone who has seen the film knows why. The characters are all terribly real, in a portrait of humanity that transcends years and decades. It's generally an optimistic portrait, but bittersweet. A man (Liam Neeson) tries to raise his stepson after his wife's death, a marriage crumbles when the husband (Alan Rickman) becomes transfixed by his assistant. Actually is not mush, because it does not paint humanity as perfect.
The movie ends at Heathrow, a contrived coincidence of the film's characters all meeting at the arrivals gate. It should be unbearable, but instead it harkens back to the prime minister's words.
"If you look for it," Grant says, "I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find that love, actually, is all around."