Love Actually in the #MeToo Era
It’s not hard to understand how Love Actually became a modern Christmas classic since its premiere in 2003. Backed by one of the most star-studded British casts outside of an entry in the Harry Potter franchise, the film’s tales of seasonally inspired romance hit just about all the right notes this time of year. Just about. The #MeToo era has brought about a much-needed re-evaluation as to the ways we as a society approach love in the workplace. As Love Actually celebrates the 15th anniversary of its release, it is worth exploring the various problematic ways in which some of its characters exploited their positions of power over their subordinates.
The characters David (played by Hugh Grant), Jamie (Colin Firth), and Harry (Alan Rickman) stand out in particular as having committed workplace abuses of power, the first two in pursuit of their own interests, with the latter meddling in the affairs of his employee, Sarah (Laura Linney). David and Jamie commit over-the-top displays of seemingly romantic affection, despite the absence of groundwork that would justify such carnal love. As viewers, there’s a fairytale aspect to both of their efforts, the kind of gestures that wind up as viral videos on social media. Neither situation holds up well to scrutiny when you look at the particulars.
As Prime Minister, David is the most powerful man in the country. By his own admission, politics gets in the way of his love-life, not only commandeering his schedule, but also creating a barrier of power between himself and practically anyone he comes into contact with. Not only does he wield authority over his subordinate Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), he exercises it, having her transferred after witnessing an inappropriate encounter with the U.S. President (Billy Bob Thorton). A holiday card from Natalie expressing affection brings the two back together, and with that the problematic dynamic.
One of the most important aspects of the #MeToo movement is the way in which it’s caused the country to re-evaluate the nuances of consent. David and Natalie are adults. For many, the concept of consenting adults is all that is needed in order to bypass any additional concerns, namely the idea that David possesses the ability to take away Natalie’s job and ruin her life if he chooses. Natalie can’t. However cute their story is shouldn’t take away from the idea that their entire relationship is completely inappropriate.
In another of the film’s workplace romances, Jamie falls in “love” with housekeeper Aurélia despite not being able to speak her language. His effort to learn Portuguese is adorable and picturesque, but fundamentally in service to a misplaced notion of love that lacks foundation. He doesn’t actually know Aurélia. This notion doesn’t seem to factor in at all in his decision to propose to her in a crowded restaurant full of her family, coworkers, and general community. In choosing such a public setting, Jamie creates a dynamic where he alone is in control, either getting his wish or setting her up to be humiliated in a moment that would follow her for the rest of her life. He proceeds with this situation knowing full well that her answer could go either way. In doing so, he put his thumb on the scale, taking away any sense of power Aurélia could hold over her own life at that moment.
Jamie’s situation is paralleled by Sam (Thomas Sangster), who follows the encouragement of his step-father Daniel (Liam Neeson) in attempting to win the heart of his schoolmate Joanna (Olivia Olson). What might otherwise be written off as puppy-love becomes fairly creepy when Sam is encouraged to show up at the airport to profess his love to a girl he doesn’t think even knows his name, skirting security in the process. It’s the kind of act that’s easy to think of as either adorable or fairly creepy depending on how long you think about it.
As for Harry, his workplace misconduct toward Sarah seems to pale in comparison with his own adulterous desires. While it is true that the dynamic between Harry and Mia (Heike Makatsch) is both problematic and highly unrealistic, Mia’s hypersexual conduct is so over the top absurd that it seems like a waste of time to explore whether Harry abused his power by gifting her a necklace, though it is worth noting that unlike David, Harry never meddles with Mia’s employment. Instead, he chooses to meddle in the love life of Sarah, who not-so-subtlety desires fellow employee Karl. His conversation with Sarah is extremely inappropriate, suggesting that she possesses a blatantly obvious urge to be impregnated by Karl that the whole office is aware of.
We don’t really see enough of their office to know if Harry is telling the truth or not when he says that Sarah’s crush is a company-wide open secret, but that notion hardly matters. Such a conversation would be immediate grounds for a lawsuit in the real world, for good reason. That kind of prying behavior from a boss is extremely creepy and creates an untenable work environment for anyone who took umbrage with such nosiness. It’s the kind of invasive harassment that this era is trying to move beyond.
I’m sure there are many who think this analysis is a bunch of politically correct nonsense, stripping a fictional narrative of any sense of joy by overanalyzing it to death. I get that this sentiment exists when people re-evaluate art from the past, but Love Actually exists in a weird state of being both iconic and also not that old. Apart from the primitive cell phones and the notion that someone might give a CD as a Christmas gift, the film could’ve essentially been made today.
Suspension of disbelief is a concept often expected of audiences before sitting down to watch a film. It’s how people can enjoy Star Wars even though we all know that there’s no Millennium Falcon now and there certainly wasn’t one “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” There is an obvious suspension of disbelief required in Love Actually, such as Colin’s (Kris Marshall) success in Wisconsin, but then there’s additional disbelief subtlety expected of the audience. Many of the women in these situations act very promiscuously, almost as if it was a purposeful effort to deflect from these sorts of criticisms. That idea would be a lot more tolerable if the idea of the woman “asking for it” wasn’t such a relic of the past that #MeToo is trying to move beyond. Like it or not, most of the workplace scenes in the film reinforce toxic masculine behavior.
I enjoy Love Actually, despite these criticisms and the immensely immoral behavior of Mark (Andrew Lincoln) in lusting after his best friend’s wife. It is a fun movie with one of the best top-to-bottom casts of any film. It is not, however, immune to criticism. Its depiction of love is a deeply flawed one. No amount of Christmas cheer should negate the fact that almost none of the romances depicted are portraits of healthy consensual affection.