Several Loves Actually

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DECEMBER 1, 2003

Several Loves Actually

It is almost unfair. The cast of Love Actually includes

Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Laura

Linney, and Colin Firth--all of them people of such

accomplishment, all of them such reminders of past pleasures,

that the sheer list of their names is almost overwhelming. Nomatter how aware we are that films with starspangled casts have

groaned under the load, we are held. These are not stars, or not

merely stars: these are actors. Can such a film possibly be

unrewarding?

It can't--largely because of them. The troubles with this

English film are in the screenplay by Richard Curtis (who also

directed), though a good deal of the writing is clever; but

whatever the actors are given to do they make so delightful--or

so delightfully moving--that Love Actually wins out over

its wobbles. All through the (quite long) picture we get sticky

bits, but then Thompson or Grant or Rickman or one of the others

speaks a word with such delicacy or lights a smile from within

so truthfully or reveals a complexity through such a small

change of expression that we brave the bumps for the pleasures.

After a while we drug ourselves with hyperbole. The film is in

one sense lifelike: in order to get the good, we have to endure

the lesser.

Love Actually is composed of a halfdozen or so

stories, not often connected, simply interwoven. All of them

have to do with love, one way or another, and all of them

traverse the weeks before Christmas. The picture begins with a

voice-over about the omnipresence of love in our lives (along

with a stupid comment about September 11). This dollop of

treacle is the first surprise from the screenwriter of Four

Weddings and a Funeral and Bridget Jones's Diary,

both of which teased along wryly. More drips of syrup continue

to spot Love Actually. But reality also persists, ranging

from the ridiculous through the cynical to the sad, and in all

these hues the actors are masterly.

Hugh Grant plays the British prime minister, resembling the

current one enough to make the idea tickle. This PM is a

bachelor. He is keen on a young woman on his staff. When the

American president visits Downing Street and makes a play for

that young woman, Grant sounds off in a press conference about

British independence from American sway. (Independence! How's

that for a comic idea?) Grant wins national cheers.

His sister, Emma Thompson, is a fortyish housewife and

mother discovering that her successful husband, Alan Rickman, is

on the verge of an affair. The tension-plus-bond between the

knowledgeable wife and the differently knowledgeable husband is

almost tangible. Colin Firth is a novelist who has a house in

the south of France and engages a Portuguese maid, played by

Lucia Moniz. The triteness of their story is freshened by

Firth's grateful surprise at his response and by Moniz's

dignified charm. In another story, one of the film's loveliest

moments is simply Laura Linney's face as, on the dance floor,

she moves for the first time into the arms of a man she has

adored for two years. In his story Liam Neeson is worst served,

playing a widowed stepfather who has to deal with his eleven-

year-old stepson's first love--for a schoolmate. Neeson does

everything possible with a role that consists largely of hugging

the boy.

Curtis's range includes sly absurdities. One instance: a

young fellow and a girl, strangers to each other, are hired to

do sex stuff for a film totally nude, mimicking it without

actually performing it. (They are body doubles for the

principals who won't do these scenes.) In the middle of one of

the most intimate scenes, the boy shyly asks the girl for a

date.

On the other hand--there are several other hands--the film

has some darkness. Linney's first rendezvous with her lover is

interrupted by a call from her deranged brother. Curtis then

extends the compass of love with a hospital scene crammed with

Linney's feeling for her brother. And a quite different strand

of the film is the holiday chronicle of a fiftyish, spacey, sour

pop star, etched by Bill Nighy, who wickedly airs his contempt

for what he does as that contempt carries him to further success-

-and to an unsuspected love. That the Nighy strand and the

saccharine strands are in the same picture is its success and

its handicap.

The debits and the credits can be tallied a bit further. The

mushy endings of Grant's story and of Neeson's are debits, but

Curtis's neat directing is a credit. (Note the remote office

assistant behind the window in Linney's hospital scene, a cold

background to what is happening closer.) The credit side of the

ledger also includes much of Curtis's dialogue and all the

acting by that dream troupe.

In the time when I was going up to

Yale to teach for two days in every week of the academic year, a

secret perk of the job was Louis Kahn. Whenever I could, I

wandered through the two buildings that Kahn had designed for

Yale, the University Art Gallery and the Center for British Art,

particularly the latter. The paintings were interesting or not;

the walk through the buildings always transformed the day.

Now

there is a documentary about Kahn called My Architect.

The film-maker has precedence over my proprietary feelings about

Kahn because he is Kahn's son, Nathaniel. The son has served the

father well, though he faced an odd difficulty: the architect's

life was so unusual that his son's understandable absorption

with it steals a bit of time from his treatment of the

work.

Louis Kahn was born in Estonia in 1901, was brought to

America in 1905, became a world-renowned architect, fathered

three children with three different women (one of whom he

married), and died of a heart attack in the men's room of New

York's Penn Station in 1974. Two further facts. Famous as he

was, he died half a million dollars in debt, and his body lay

unidentified in the city morgue for three days. This brusque

summary obviously implies numerous adventures and misadventures

of a focused, stubborn, high-handed, very engaging man.

The son, who was a boy when his father died, hadn't known

him as well as he would have liked. This film is a gift to us

but, one may guess, was made primarily for Nathaniel's

satisfaction. He traces his father's life from the Philadelphia

where he lived through the various places around the world where

Kahn's work benefits the landscape, ending with the National

Assembly complex in Bangladesh. Along the way there are

conversations with Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei, Frank Gehry, Moshe

Safdie, and others, all admirers who add facets to the Kahn

character.

The only question about the film for this viewer is why most

of the Kahn buildings are treated more or less like statuary. We

usually are shown them from the outside, great embodiments of

exalted visions. But I would have appreciated seeing more of the

interiors, as I did on my walks through the buildings at Yale.

By Stanley Kauffmann

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