Ten things Love Actually actually taught us about relationships

Ten years on from the schmaltzy Richard Curtis-fest.

It's been ten years since shmaltzy Richard Curtis-fest Love Actually Received-Pronounciation-stuttered across our screens - can you believe it? Yep, it’s one entire decade since the film took on the difficult task of defining not only Christmas but the very meaning of love itself, an emotion which apparently only strikes those in possession of prime London property porn (we're talking mezzanine boudoirs, habitat fairy lights, exposed bricks - the works). Much has changed since those heady days in the early noughties where any meaningful dramatic scene had to be accompanied by third-album Sugababes: Hugh Grant is actually Prime Minister now, for example, and Martine McCutcheon's career is entering a new, post-laxative-yoghurt-advert phase. 

Just in case you thought that the Hairpin's celebratory Love Actually fan fiction wasn't enough of a tribute to the star-studded cinematographic fromage-fest, here are ten invaluable lessons that it taught us about relationships: 

1.) You don't need to speak the same language as someone to fall in love with them.

All you need to do is clean a man's country house (for money, but it helps if the whole time you sweetly give the impression that you're so nice that you'd happily do it for no recompense whatsoever), then jump in a lake with barely any clothes on to rescue the pages of the rubbish crime novel he's writing in solitude because his cock of a brother slept with his missus. Proposal of marriage guaranteed.

2.) Joni Mitchell is the only soundtrack to being cheated on.

In the defining scene of the film, Emma Thompson allows herself a moment to mourn the discovery that her husband (Alan Rickman) is cheating on her by tearfully listening to Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now, then putting on her stiff upper lip and going downstairs to be a mum to her kids. It's as heartbreaking as it is iconic, and as a result no other song will ever quite cut it for those who've been done the dirty on (clouds just never quite look the same once you find out he's gone and put it in another lady), especially not when the person doing that dirty is Severus Snape. 

3.) Looking for a job where you might find the slightly socially inept future love of your life? Naked body doubling is your friend!

All that simulated sex really does wonders for romance, resulting as it does in charmingly awkward, non-sexual English chitchat about the weather that will eventually result in a long-term partnership, the highly-charged and erotic consummation of which presumably takes place shortly following a climacticdate to the nativity play of primary school children. It's a common misconception that these two characters are in meant to be adult movie stars, but in the absence of seeing the female character being upside-down-boned by six-oiled up himbos in a pink corner jacuzzi bath, we're pretty sure they're just stand-ins. After all, he even has the decency to warm up his hands before placing them tentatively on her nipples.

4.) American girls are slutty and wear furry boots. English girls are frigid and don't.

This is the law. Also, if you’re an English boy completely lacking in self-awareness and looking for love, just move to somewhere sexy (like, y’know, Wisconsin) and you’ll probably end up spending the night in a single bed with four naked women. Americans are obsessed with sex (see American President versus British Prime Minister, below) and will therefore soothe your wounded ego, still damaged as it is from the occasion where you slagged off your romantic target's canape cooking efforts in front of her and still expected her to shag you, the uptight British bitch. If Colin were a real person, he'd be the kind you see in the underwear aisle of La Senza stores in regional shopping centres, a.k.a someone you back slowly away from.

5.) Britain will eventually stand up to America in a political situation, but only if the Prime Minister fancies the tea lady and wants to ensure that the President, who has basically been sexually harassing her at work, doesn’t get to her first.

Forget going via human resources on this one and saying you'll back her at a tribunal ‘til the end. A much better pulling tactic is to basically declare war in front of the world's media, because, like, pretty girls.

6.) If somebody is harbouring a secret and totally unrequited love for you, they will most likely make your wedding to their best mate super-nice and then quietly confess on word cards at Christmas before moving on with their lives.

Rather than, y’know, turn up drunkenly sobbing in front of your flat one day and punching your boyfriend. Because, as we all know, unrequited love is known to induce states of sweetness and restraint at all times.

7.) Sometimes Christmas is better spent with your best mate, getting drunk and watching porn, than it is in pursuit of an actual shag.

Now, this one actually may well have traction (there's nothing that screams 'Christmas Eve' more than a supervised wank.) When ex-heroin addict and failed popstar Billy Mack, played with a heavy dose of self-satire by Bill Nighy, regains fame but chooses to jettison Elton John's party in order to spend Christmas with his old, fat archetypal loser of a manager, our cold feminist hearts became one degree warmer, even if the decision was entirely inconsistent with the character's previous lascivious behaviour, and his manager seemed like kind of a drag. 

8.) Puppy love takes precedence over being orphaned.

Recently lost your mum to a tragic terminal illness? Dad off the scene? Perhaps you need someone to tell you that mum really loved you and that that love will always shine in the sky for her. Someone like a grief counsel-OHMYGOD LOOK AT THAT FIT GIRL. In another instance of those pesky, sexy Americans coming over the pond and grabbing the attention of unsuspecting Brits, tweenage Joanna gives ten-year-old Sam his first romantic feelings. He then defies airport security to kiss her goodbye with the help of Rowan Atkinson, somehow without being mistaken for a terrorist with a bomb in his underpants and Tasered: it’s a Christmas miracle!

9.) Some people need you more than others.


In a heartbreaking scene to rival the Emma Thompson cry, Sarah, who has been in love with her colleague Karl (those abs! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD THOSE ABS!) for years, abandons the chance to pursue a relationship with him in order to look after her disabled brother. Their final scene shows Sarah and her brother celebrating Christmas together in the institution where he lives, laughing and winding a scarf around each other’s necks. A bittersweet ending for a character who loves more than she is loved and who, sadly, will probably end up alone as a result. 

10.) ‘Love actually is all around us’.

The central message of the film and the reason behind its title, you might feel that it’s a little idealistic at a time of year when all your so-called loved ones get together to drunkenly express their hatred for one another over an ill-advised box of £3 wine. Nevertheless, Hugh Grant says it, and he says it over a montage of people greeting each other happily at the airport, some of whom were in the movie (the members of the public has presumably signed consent forms beforehand) Who on earth could argue with that? The answer to which is of course: anyone with basic debating skills who's ever expressed a pissed-up authentic emotion in front of their families at Christmas and paid the price for it. So everyone, basically.

All images: Universal Pictures

Ten years on from Love Actually, we're still grappling with what we learned. Image: Getty

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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