This essay on the much-debated problems with Love, Actually and how to fix them was originally a Christmas piece. It’s been updated and reposted for the movie’s 20th anniversary re-release.
Richard Curtis’ Christmas classic Love Actually just turned 20, which means both that it’s getting a 4K Ultra HD re-release (available Nov. 21) and that we’ve now had 20 full years of discussion about how the movie is incredibly problematic. The thinkpieces and listicles about what’s wrong with it have already been done to death. Turns out, a lot of plot elements in this romantic comedy just don’t hold up decades years later.
Still — I love it. I love romantic comedies, because I’m a sucker for a good love story and a happy ending. I love anthology stories, because I love seeing webs of characters interact and affect each other’s lives. And I love this movie’s rosy-glasses view of London at Christmastime, because I grew up reading a lot of English children’s books set in similar circumstances, and for some reason, nothing sounded lovelier than shopping at Harrods on Christmas. And in spite of all Love Actually’s widely critiqued problems, I love it in the same way I love one of Curtis’ other famous rom-coms, Four Weddings and a Funeral. It’s that particular kind of love that comes from knowing how to fix a movie’s issues.
Honestly, a lot of it comes down to some simple fixes. Some of the movie’s plotlines hold up much better than others, and they wouldn’t need anything more than a cast update. Others would need a little more tampering. The main problem with Love Actually can be boiled down to the fact that very few of the plotlines are actually about love. Love Actually could be called Sex Actually — or, at its worst points, Uncomfortable Workplace Dynamics Actually. Hugh Grant’s opening voiceover implies that the stories ahead encompass all forms of love — sexual, romantic, familial, platonic, and more — but so many of them focus on physical attraction, and physical attraction only.
I’m here to fix that. I’m here to break down Love Actually and patch it back up, with some casting updates to make it more relevant. I’m here to focus on that much-promised love, which actually isn’t particularly present in the movie we got. The bones of Love Actually have so much potential. They just need to be broken apart and allowed to heal properly. This imaginary reboot would actually extol different kinds of love across the holiday season.
Ranked in order from what needs the least fixing to what needs the most work, here’s what Love Actually needs for a heartwarming (and way less squicky) reboot.
The Sex Stand-in Plotline
The Original Plot: John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page) meet while working as body stand-ins — effectively stunt doubles for the sex scenes in some unnamed film. While they’re totally fine being naked together and pretending to boink on camera, they’re super shy off the set.
The Fix: Actually, nothing about this one needs to change. The most sex-based plotline is actually the least sexual, which makes for a fun irony.
Ideal Recasting: Nicholas Hoult as John and Jenna Coleman as Judy. These two characters need to exude politeness and awkwardness as well as physical chemistry, and I think these two can pull that off.
Little Kid and Sad Dad
The Original Plot: Single father Daniel (Liam Neeson) grieves his wife’s recent death and bonds with his preteen stepson Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). Sam wants to impress a pretty American girl in middle school (Olivia Olson) by playing drums at the Christmas pageant. But when the pageant ends and she heads to the airport, Sam feels like he’s missed his chance to confess his crush after the concert — so Daniel drives him to the airport, and Sam causes a scene as he bypasses security to confess his crush. It’s cute, it’s innocent, and it doesn’t need an update, except for casting. Oh, also there’s a tiny, tiny extra plot point where Daniel meets Carol (Claudia Schiffer), the mom of one of Sam’s classmates, and feels a spark.
The Fix: Two wee changes — one, the girl at school shouldn’t have the same name as Sam’s mom, because that’s just weird. Two, the two kids should at least know each other, instead of him having a one-sided infatuation with her. Also, if he’s playing in the band as she sings, wouldn’t they know each other already? That’s just a logistical oversight.
But other than that, nothing really needs to change in the writing. It’s a story about a father connecting with his son, and about the importance of telling people how you feel about them before it’s too late.
Ideal Recasting: Idris Elba as Daniel — Elba gives off the same gruff energy as Neeson, with the same sense of a big heart under that action-star exterior. Also, I thought it might be good to emphasize that Daniel is not Sam’s biological father, since I definitely missed that bit the first time I watched Love Actually. Kate Moss could play Carol — the whole gimmick of the original casting was that Daniel was like, “I’d only date Claudia Schiffer,” and Moss seems like a good modern update for her (especially since there was a Kate Moss reference in the original). The Baby-sitters Club’s Momona Tamada as Joanna, the very cool American girl. And since Thomas Brodie-Sangster eternally looks 12, he can play Sam again. Okay, just kidding! Let’s go with Jojo Rabbit’s Roman Griffin Davis.
The Joni Mitchell CD
The Original Plot: Middle-aged father Harry (Alan Rickman) is married to Karen (Emma Thompson) — but he’s intrigued by his flirtatious new secretary, Mia (Heike Makatasch). Eventually, he buys Mia a very expensive necklace (packed up by an eccentric salesman played by Rowan Atkinson). Karen finds the necklace and thinks it’s for her — but when he gives her a Joni Mitchell CD for Christmas, she realizes he bought the necklace for someone else! Cue the incredibly heartbreaking sequence where Karen tries to compose herself before heading out for the Christmas pageant, as Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” plays.
The Fix: As heartbreaking as this one is, I think we should keep it! No notes. This one is meant to be devastating, and should stay that way.
Ideal Recasting: Benedict Cumberbatch as Harry, because he gives off “Guy who would totally cheat on his wife given the right set of circumstances” vibes. Kate Winslet as Karen, since I am a big fan of Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, and Winslet played Thompson’s younger sister in that one. Natalie Dormer as Mia, because if anyone can woo a married man with just a well-placed smirk, it’s her. And Rowan Atkinson can reprise his role, and maybe make a cheeky comment about how this happens all the time.
Washed-up Pop Star and Manager
The Original Plot: Rock legend Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) records a new Christmas song. He thinks it sucks, and he’s very open about that when he promotes it — which eventually turns it into a number-one single. Meanwhile, his longtime manager Joe (Gregor Fisher) tries to do damage control. On Christmas, instead of celebrating with Elton John, Billy decides to hang out with Joe.
The Fix: Y’know, this one is mostly fine too. Just for flavor, though, I’m turning the rock legend into a pop diva with no filter.
Ideal Recasting: Helena Bonham Carter as Billie Mack — she’s edgy, and she’d make a convincing and electric Madonna/Cher-esque pop star who has run out of fucks to give. The Favourite’s Olivia Colman as her long-suffering manager Jo.
The Keira Knightley sign plotline
The Original Plot: Dejected Mark (Andrew Lincoln) is moody after his best friend Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) marries the beautiful Juliet (Keira Knightley). Juliet learns that Mark has a crush on her when she watches his video of the wedding, and realizes it’s all closeups of her face. Later, he shows up at her house with a bunch of signs confessing his unrequited crush on her, which she finds charming for some reason!
The Fix: All right, now we’re getting into the bigger fixes. This subplot is the most maligned of all the Love Actually plotlines, and for good reason — Mark barely knows Juliet! It’s creepy that he has a copy of her wedding video that’s all closeups of her face! It’s weird that he’s dumping all of this on her when she’s just trying to enjoy her first Christmas as a married woman! But it’s also the easiest one to fix. Just make it gay!
Juliet and Peter get married, and Mark is upset. He gives Juliet the cold shoulder and repeatedly turns down plans with Peter. When Juliet watches his wedding video, she realizes that the footage isn’t of her — but of Peter! Yes, we’re fixing this one by giving Mark an unrequited crush on his best friend, who sadly isn’t romantically or sexually compatible with Mark. It turns the weird infatuation with Juliet, a woman Mark barely knows and clearly is only interested in because she’s pretty, into a more nuanced yearning for his closest friend.
And Juliet realizes this. When Mark shows up at the door for Peter and Juliet’s first Christmas party as a couple, after blowing off all plans with Peter for weeks, Juliet gets Peter to talk to him alone, so the two men can have a heart-to-heart. Mark apologizes for his standoffish behavior, and while he doesn’t outright confess his crush, because he’s not gonna make things awkward for his best friend, Peter can still read between the lines, because they are best friends. He reminds Mark that he loves him as a friend no matter what, and they hug it out. It’s still a bit bittersweet, but definitely not as weird!
Ideal Recasting: Lily James as Juliet — she needs to be so beautiful and ethereal that it’s believable someone would fall in love with her at first sight. John Boyega as Peter, a good younger update of Chiwetel Eijofor. And Andrew Garfield as Mark, who isn’t as creepy and pathetic in this version, just more sad and yearning.
Sarah and Karl
The Original Plot: Shy Sarah (Laura Linney) has a big crush on her hot co-worker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). As she’s finally getting the chance to hook up with him after the big holiday party, her mentally ill brother Michael calls and interrupts them. She answers the phone twice in a row, and Karl is all like, “Why are you putting your family before me? This isn’t gonna work.” (He doesn’t say that, but he does leave.) Ultimately, this thread is just really sad for no real reason, and once again, the romantic part is focused on physical attraction. The thread with her brother feels a little disjointed, too, because so much emphasis is placed on boinking Karl.
The Fix: Instead of hooking up, Sarah and Karl should really connect, and decide to leave the party to do some cute, silly activity together — get ice cream in the dead of winter? Happen upon some winter carnival taking place? Go see Santa? Something quirky and cute! Sarah is letting herself go and having fun for the first time in a while, and Karl seems relieved that someone is interested in him for his personality, not just because he’s a hottie.
Sarah gets the call from her brother and has to leave in the middle of whatever she and Karl are doing. She excuses herself, but instead of being a dick about it and telling her to not answer her phone again, Karl maybe just feels a bit awkward as he tries to navigate questions about what’s going on. Things can still be tense as Sarah closes up and brushes Karl off, and they part ways.
But because everyone in this plotline deserves better, Karl shows up at Sarah’s the next day with coffee, cocoa, or some portable version of whatever they were doing when Michael called. And he shares some story about his family — maybe he explains that he doesn’t get along with them because they’re controlling, which makes him particularly sensitive to Michael interrupting Sarah’s date. Or maybe he’s an only child who never had siblings and doesn’t understand Sarah’s feelings of responsibility around Michael. Or maybe he loves his family, but they’re really intrusive, and he’s learned to establish boundaries, but he worries that Sarah needs to too!
He opens up to her, because we love a man with a sensitive side, but he also listens, and comes to understand her. He eventually gets the whole situation with Michael, but he still wants to get to know Sarah, because she makes him smile. So they finish up their date — and during the Christmas scene, Sarah introduces Karl to her brother.
Ideal Recasting: Dev Patel as Karl and Dakota Johnson as Sarah. Karl needs to be gorgeous, so Dev Patel is a perfect choice. Sarah is one of two Americans in the entire cast, and Johnson really embodies the associated quirky, wholesome girl-next-door vibes.
Colin, God of Sex
The Original Plot: Bumbling Colin (Kris Marshall) isn’t having any luck with his English girls, so buys a ticket to Wisconsin, convinced he’s gonna be a total sex god in America because American chicks love Brits. His friend Tony (Abdul Salis) has his doubts, but just rolls his eyes. Sure enough, Colin wanders into a Milwaukee bar, and every woman in the vicinity throws herself at him. He ends the night in an orgy with some hot roommates.
The Fix: We’re going to actually dig into the different kinds of love that the original movie promises, but rarely commits to. The new Colin has similar ambitions to go to America to get laid. This time, Tony decides to join him, and they bet on the outcome, because Tony’s convinced that Colin will fail. And he’s right! Colin fumbles in the bar. All the girls roll their eyes at him. Tony doesn’t fare much better. Instead of attending an orgy, the two men share a drink and reminisce about their friendship. They agree it was a stupid idea to trek across the world for sex, but they’re glad they have each other.
Ideal Recasting: Asa Butterfield as Colin and Ncuti Gatwa as Tony. I just think it would be hilarious to have the Sex Education stars in these roles.
Jamie and Aurélia
The Original Plot: Writer Jamie (Colin Firth) retreats to his French cottage after catching his girlfriend sleeping with his brother. He meets housekeeper Aurélia (Lúcia Moniz), who does not speak English, but even so, they start having feelings for each other. They don’t act on them while Jamie is in residence, but after leaving France, he immediately returns and proposes to Aurélia in broken Portuguese.
The Fix: In this plotline, we’re going to eliminate the fact that Aurélia is Jamie’s housekeeper, and instead come up with some meet-cutes outside of that employer-employee relationship. I have two proposed alterations for this one, depending on how queer we want this adaptation to be.
The first is the more traditional: Jamie comes home to his girlfriend cheating on him with his brother. He heads to his usual vacation cottage in southern France, only to learn that the cottage next door is being rented out by a very large, loud family. They immediately try to adopt him as one of their own, bringing over food and inviting him to parties. He feels out of place, but bonds with one member of the family, Aurélia. The two of them hit it off, and an attraction grows between them. But neither of them can bring themselves to act on their feelings by the time Jamie leaves, especially since Aurélia’s charmingly overbearing family is constantly watching them.
Then, on Christmas, he sees his own family being all stiff and awkward (especially his cheating brother) and realizes he had a way more fun time with his neighbors in France. He decides to book a flight, and he spontaneously shows up at Aurélia’s family’s Christmas dinner, since they invited him before he left. Instead of asking her to marry him, since that’s a lot to put on someone he’s known for two weeks, he asks her on a date. The whole family cheers, since they were rooting for them the entire time. The two smooch, then tentatively begin a relationship.
In a second possible iteration: Jamie is a woman, and she comes home to find her boyfriend cheating on her with her sister. She’s particularly upset, because she and her boyfriend were supposed to go on vacation in southern France together. Instead, she invites her friend Aurélia. The two of them spend some time together, and wind up in increasingly romantic situations. Jamie has a long, hard think about her own sexuality, especially after Aurélia confesses that she had a bit of a crush on Jamie back in university. Neither of them say anything about this growing attraction until they leave. Then, when Jamie sees all her relatives together on Christmas Eve, she books it across London to Aurélia and confesses her love. The two smooch, then tentatively begin a relationship.
The heart of this storyline isn’t uneven workplace dynamics, language barriers, or spontaneous unlikely marriage proposals — it’s shyness and the inability to express feelings! Personally, I’m a fan of the latter here, especially as a parallel to the whole Juliet-Peter-Mark triangle. But the first one does fit the original framework a twinge better.
Ideal Recasting: Version 1: Henry Golding as Jamie and Nathalie Emmanuel as Aurélia. Version 2: Gemma Chan as Jamie and Nathalie Emmanuel as Aurélia.
The Prime Minister and Natalie
The Original Plot: David (Hugh Grant), the UK’s recently elected prime minister, meets junior household staff member Natalie (Martine McCutcheon) on his first day on the job. He’s smitten with her and she’s taken with him, but they don’t act on anything because he’s the prime minister, she works for him, and unlike Colin Firth as Jamie, David is aware of appropriate workplace dynamics.
Then, the (unnamed) president of the United States (Billy Bob Thornton) visits, and he hits on Natalie, who gets flustered. David is upset, and has Natalie moved to a different position. But after finding a Christmas card from her buried in his pile of holiday greetings, and reading her message about how she’s “actually his,” he sets off to find her. Eventually, they attend a Christmas pageant together, and make out backstage.
The Fix: Natalie and the prime minister have probably the cutest, most cinematic story out of everyone in this movie — and also the one most rife with uncomfortable dynamics. This Love Actually plotline requires the most fixing.
First fix — Natalie no longer works directly for the prime minister. Immediately, the weird workplace vibes are gone. She now owns and runs a little café around the corner from 10 Downing Street. When the prime minister feels particularly overwhelmed one day, he ducks into her café, and she accidentally spills something on him. She doesn’t realize who he is for a good few minutes. Then she’s embarrassed and he’s flustered, but they’re both charmed by each other. He also really likes her chocolate biscuits! He starts to stop by during off hours whenever he can, and she starts to keep the café open a little later, just so he’s able to sip some late-night cocoa.
Second fix — just get rid of the U.S. president. Back in 2003 when the film came out, his presence was meant as a political allegory, since many people in the U.K. felt that America was pushing them around. But we can have romantic misunderstandings without men in power abusing their positions! This is supposed to be a feel-good comedy anyway.
There are two options here, depending on how big a political statement we want. One is that the person the prime minister sees accosting Natalie is her landlord, letting her know that rent is going up due to the state of the economy, or inflation, or something like that. Natalie snaps at the prime minister about his politics preventing him from helping people like her. So instead of standing up to the American president, he stands up to Parliament about some law they’re debating that affects people like Natalie. Then he goes house-to-house to find her on Christmas, and ends up making out with her during his sister’s children’s Christmas pageant. This one is a bit convoluted, but I wanted to honor the impact of the original plotline without making it uncomfortable.
The second option is to remove that angle entirely! Instead, Natalie’s ex-boyfriend shows up at the café, and the two embrace and are particularly cozy. But David only sees them through a window and thinks they’ve gotten back together instead. Gasp! It’s a simple rom-com misunderstanding. He stops coming around to the café, and when she spots him and tries to talk to him, he alludes to the fact he saw her with her boyfriend. She still leaves the prime minister a card that says, “Yours, Natalie.” He still realizes his error and goes house-to-house to find her on Christmas, then ends up making out with her during his sister’s children’s Christmas pageant!
Third fix — No more fat jokes. Seriously, McCutcheon isn’t even remotely plus-sized. She just has a round face! What was up with that?
Ideal Recasting: Emilia Clarke as Natalie — she also has a charming, round face and a gorgeous smile! Tom Hiddleston as the Prime Minister. If anyone can re-create Hugh Grant’s awkward charm (besides Hugh Grant), it’s Hiddleston.
Here’s the thing
Look — Love Actually in its 2003 form is flawed. There is a lot of workplace harassment. There’s a lot of sex and far too little love, which makes the movie’s title feel misleading or just misinformed. And the few love stories in the movie are predominantly heterosexual. There isn’t any way the movie is going to resonate today the same way it did in 2003.
But it’s been 20 years. It’s the perfect time for a reboot, a new chance to bring the joy of intertwined Christmas love stories to a whole new audience. Love Actually is a problematic fave. But it could just be a fave — a movie that makes good on the bold promises of love it makes in the beginning.