If you’re a fan of a particular romantic comedy, you’ve probably wondered what happened to its characters after the end credits rolled. Did they stay as blissful as they were during that final close-up kiss? Or did they spend their days arguing over whose turn it was to clean the bathroom?

Fans of Richard Curtis’s ensemble rom-com, Love Actually, are about to find out. For this year’s charity fundraiser, Red Nose Day, on 24 March, the writer-director has made a short sequel to his 2003 Christmas film, so we will soon see whether its various happy couples are still happy today. But there is another, trickier question that the new film is less likely to answer. How many of those couples were genuinely happy in the first place?

Love Actually was Curtis’s directorial debut, but he was already Britain’s romantic-comedy king thanks to his screenplays for The Tall Guy, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. He even had his own theme song: The Troggs’ Love is All Around, as covered by Wet Wet Wet, topped the UK singles chart for 15 weeks when it was used in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and it reappeared as Christmas is All Around in Love Actually. But is love really all around in Curtis’s groovy, fairy light-festooned London? I’m not so sure. The most peculiar aspect of Love Actually is how little love, actually, there is in it.

Lust Actually might have been a more appropriate title

There is some, of course. There is a woman’s devotion to her unstable brother, a widower’s sympathy for his stepson, and a drug-addled rock star’s blokey appreciation of his long-suffering manager. But there is no romantic love as anyone over the age of 12 would understand it. Nobody gets to know and appreciate somebody else’s unique qualities. Nobody discovers that they can talk to that somebody for hours on end, or realises that he or she complements them in unexpected and life-enhancing ways. Instead, most of the film’s main characters are smitten by someone they have barely spoken to. You can see why Curtis went for the title he did, but Lust Actually might have been more appropriate.

Harry and Sarah (Alan Rickman and Laura Linney) both fancy delectably exotic colleagues (Heike Makatsch and Rodrigo Santoro respectively). David (Hugh Grant) fancies his tea lady, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). Jamie (Colin Firth) fancies his maid, Aurelia (Lucia Moniz). Sam (Thomas Sangster) fancies his schoolmate, Joanna (Olivia Olson). Colin (Kris Marshall) fancies the first American woman he lays eyes on. And Mark (Andrew Lincoln) fancies his best friend’s wife, Juliet (Keira Knightley), a hankering he spells out on cue cards on her doorstep, while her new husband, Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is sitting a few feet away. (What would Mark have done if Peter had answered the door? Maybe the Red Nose Day sequel will reveal all.) 

“To me, you are perfect,” says one of the cue cards. What it doesn’t say is why Mark thinks she’s perfect. What’s so special about her? Obviously, Juliet is played by Keira Knightley, so she has an aesthetic advantage over most of us, but what else would prompt Mark’s misguided semi-public display of affection? Is she funny? Brave? Kind to animals? Does she share his interest in stamp collecting or Civil War battle re-enactments? We will never know, just as we’ll never know what David sees in Natalie or what Jamie sees in Aurelia, because they don’t have any dialogue that reveals anything about any of them.

‘Steady stream of bile’

And that’s what’s so perverse about Love Actually. Curtis is a famously verbal screenwriter, and yet he ignores the idea that attraction can depend on what people say as well as on how they look. Nor does he include any of the flirtatious banter that distinguishes It Happened One Night, Pillow Talk, The Apartment, When Harry Met Sally, and any other classic rom-com you care to name. The strand in which the English Jamie and the Portuguese Aurelia can’t speak a word of each other’s language is just the most extreme example. 

It would be unfair to say that the characters in Love Actually don’t talk at all, though. They do; it’s just that their talk consists almost entirely of insults, with a particular emphasis on body-shaming. The film features two different fathers with weight-related pet names for their daughters (“Plumpy” and “Miss Dunkin’ Donuts 2003”), as well as an ageing rocker (Bill Nighy) who goes on and on about how “chubby” his manager (Gregor Fisher) is. If you didn’t know it was a romantic comedy, you could easily mistake it for a science-fiction fable set on a parallel Earth beset by a Tourette’s Syndrome pandemic. In this dystopian reality, somebody consoles their forlorn best buddy by labelling him “a lonely ugly arsehole”; a rock star swears repeatedly on children’s television and local radio without being interrupted; and the UK’s prime minister is introduced to a Downing Street staffer named Terrence, and immediately remarks, “Had an uncle called Terrence. Hated him. He was a pervert.”

It’s a rare treat to see people in Love Actually who seem to get on with each other

Admittedly, this kind of non sequitur from a high-level politician no longer seems quite so far-fetched now that Boris Johnson is the UK’s foreign secretary, but the film’s steady stream of bile does leave a nasty taste in the mouth. Within a single four-minute stretch, one character has been named “the worst DJ in the world”, another “the ugliest man in the world”, and a Christmas single has been described as “the worst record” ever made. As the Black-Eyed Peas and Justin Timberlake put it a few months before the film was released, where is the love?

The only strand in which two characters are vaguely civilised to each other is the one which has two body doubles (Martin Freeman and Joanna Page) exchanging pleasantries while they’re naked and acting out sex scenes on a film set. It’s a rare treat to see people in Love Actually who seem to get on with each other, but even they don’t discuss anything more meaningful than the traffic on the way to work, so you wouldn’t put money on their having a future together.

And when one character does attempt to open up and say something personal, the response is bizarre. At the start of the film, the recently widowed Daniel (Liam Neeson) phones his friend Karen (Emma Thompson), but she immediately cuts him off. “Doesn’t mean that I’m not terribly concerned that your wife just died,” she adds, laying on the irony so thickly that you might assume that Daniel’s wife had suffered nothing worse than a mild headache. This cruel and unusual punishment gets even more brutal when he breaks down in tears. Karen’s reaction: “Get a grip. People hate sissies. No one’s ever going to shag you if you cry all the time.” Wow. With friends like her, who needs internet trolls?

On the other hand, maybe Karen has a point. By the end of the film, Daniel has hooked up with a Claudia Schiffer lookalike (played by Claudia Schiffer), so apparently the grieving process needn’t last more than a few weeks. Similarly, Jamie proposes to Aurelia a mere month after he caught his previous girlfriend in bed with his own brother, so heartbreak isn’t a big deal, either, as far as Curtis is concerned.

So what is love, actually? According to the film, it’s an instant infatuation, it has nothing to do with being able to communicate, and it vanishes in no time. As fun as the Rose Nose Day reunion is bound to be, then, it’s hard to care whether any of the film’s couples are still together. If they’d broken up, they would all have moved on within weeks, anyway.

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