/

My unlikely valentine

by Kaori Shoji

Love Actually

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Richard Curtis
Running time: 135 minutes
Language: English
Opens Feb. 7
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Love, love, love. Given how movies are pretty indiscriminating when it comes to strewing that word around, there’s a positive recklessness in how “Love Actually” takes huge fistfuls of this love stuff and scatters it all over the screen like, like . . . chicken feed? The characters in the film are so full of sighs, so enraptured and so moony, that one fears for the state of their hearts. They must have had a cardiologist ready on the set, standing by with a stretcher team.

You can tell British writer/director Richard Curtis (who penned “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Bridget Jones’ Diary”) is an extremely nice person, maybe almost too nice to be a film director. Not only does he insist on assaulting our senses with various renditions of or references to the L-word, he makes sure that his characters (and there are an awful lot of them) end up happy or hitched, or both — from the 10-year-old London schoolboy to the fortysomething prime minister, from the aging rock star to the middle-aged wife.

A total of eight couples “find happiness,” and other people on the sidelines get their share of coziness, all in the frantic few weeks before Christmas when the inner mantra of “If I don’t find someone now I’ll be alone for the holidays and maybe the rest of my life” reaches fever pitch. But no one need worry because Curtis is the veritable ambassador of love. By the end credits, everyone is smiling and exchanging glad hugs or passionate kisses. Not the film to see if you’re currently spending evenings at home playing solitaire.

In the first half-hour when the film is acquainting us with the cast and encouraging us to mingle, one wonders how Curtis is going to juggle the sheer density of population and still manage to tell the story. But really, such boring film-review concerns are wholly beside the point. As the characters keep insisting: “For God’s sakes, it’s Christmas!” which one takes as a cue for embittered film reviewers to put on a lid on the bitterness and get with the spirit of things.

It so happens that the Japanese release is just in time for Valentine’s Day, which from “Love Actually’s” point of view, is even better. The whole package just screams for red wrapping paper patterned with pink hearts and a festoon of red ribbons. Love, love, love.

Accordingly, Curtis has assembled Britain’s most lovable people (Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley, Rowan Atkinson — to name just a few), all being very bashfully British about love with much blushing, ahem-ing and muttering love woes in undertones.

Here’s a typical scene: Grant, playing the British prime minister, who’s single, falls for a young assistant (Martine McCutcheon) in his office. He looks at her curvaceous figure wrapped in a tight skirt as she walks away (after serving him tea), and with an expression of utter despair, says, “Oh God, this is so inconvenient” before plopping his head on his desk. As my Brit friend Ian says to me: “The British male cannot come on strong or even pretend to be sexy. He is encumbered by self-doubt, fear of losing dignity and the crushing, debilitating sense of his own inadequacy. However, at the same time he knows this is his greatest strength.”

As for the English femme? Karen (Thompson), wed to the delectably weary Harry (Alan Rickman) for 13 years, describes herself as “cold and English” and needs her favorite Joni Mitchell songs to teach her “how to feel.” But she does feel, quite acutely later on when she finds that the present under the Christmas tree presumed to be for her from Harry (a wickedly cute gold necklace that she had sneaked a peek at when it was lying on his desk) ends up going to his young, sexy secretary. What Harry actually got for her was a Joni Mitchell CD (as if she didn’t have her own collection already). And so she goes off into the bedroom for a quiet, solitary weep before emerging just in time to bundle their kids into the family car, noisily and deceptively cheerful.

The Karen and Harry episode is the only one that makes any claim to realism, and Thompson gives one of the most moving performances of her career as the smart, middle-aged woman who paces her bedroom trying not to have a complete meltdown (calculating the consequences of puffy eyes and red nose), but allowing a few tears to trickle down her cheeks (without some kind of release, she may lose control later). Wordlessly, her face full of grief, she dabs at her mascara and blinks hard at the ceiling. No punishment awaits Harry — only the bitter-sweetness of a love that’s stood the test of time, nourished by a woman who is ultimately prepared to forgive.

Out of the cacophony of other, newly minted love affairs that promise eternal love forever and ever, theirs stand out like a winter fern among hothouse roses, adding a much-needed zest to the bouquet.