Selling England by the pound

Richard Curtis's new film, Love Actually, is sure to be a success - just like all the others. Yet Ryan Gilbey thinks this smooth operator has nothing to be proud of
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The Independent Culture

Disciples of Quentin Tarantino complained about having to wait five years for his new movie, but the less demonstrative admirers of the British screenwriter Richard Curtis have been twiddling their thumbs for almost as long. The comparison is not spurious. Only now that Curtis's latest picture, Love Actually, has arrived can we see that he shares more with that bloodthirsty reservoir dog than was first apparent. With its self-referential irony, its preference for tics and eccentricities over flesh-and-blood characterisation, and its escalating structure of competing climaxes, Love Actually is the Kill Bill of romantic comedies.

The movie, Curtis's first as director, continues and clarifies the intercontinental love affair that has run through his film work. Three of Curtis's earlier screenplays - The Tall Guy (1989), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Notting Hill (1999) - focused on Anglo-American love affairs between a self-deprecating man and an effortlessly serene woman. Even the one exception, Bean (1997), hinged on the idea of America being seduced by an unpretentious, idiosyncratic Brit. And when you think about it, what is Hugh Grant anyway but Mr Bean with better table manners?

The impression is of a battle that Curtis keeps winning, but is compelled to restage from scratch in order to prove that he can win it all over again, perpetuating the same myths - each time - about British reserve and American cool. The Tall Guy can be seen now as a rehearsal for the format that paid dividends in Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, but from a commercial perspective it was too skewwhiff to succeed. The US market was never likely to go cock-a-hoop for the story of a gawky American who must prove he is the equal of a sardonic Brit. Curtis is nothing if not a stunning entrepreneur, and it must surely have been his sound business sense that told him to invert the mismatch, to play up to the stereotypes.

It's no coincidence that Four Weddings and a Funeral opened a few months after the last of Merchant-Ivory's heritage pictures. That producer-director team had been the international face of British cinema since Heat and Dust in 1983. But, following The Remains of the Day in late 1993, their interest wandered away from stately homes and literary treasures; not only did their popularity wane, but the image of Britishness that those films promoted dissipated instantly. Curtis found himself in the right place at the right time. His films are elitist in a social context - few of his characters are short of money in the bank, and most of them have the reflexive chirpiness of people who've been to more dinner parties than you've had hot dinners.

But what has made them more accessible and successful than the Merchant-Ivory films is their rejection of an intellectual elitism. It's important to remember that the opening line of Four Weddings is a string of profanities delivered by Hugh Grant in his now-familiar plummy chirrup. It feels now like a statement of intent: Yes, these are toffs, but don't be afraid - they swear just like you and me in the cheap seats. So audiences who might have been frightened away from literary adaptations of books they know they should have read can experience a plush life that feels far more attainable than any intellectual prosperity.

After The Tall Guy, in which the hero lived in a dingy North London bedsit with a broken answerphone, something aspirational crept into Curtis's writing. His movies started to be about the audience's desire to inhabit the world on screen, rather than just the wish to see two star-crossed lovers united. It seems unbelievable now that the character played by Emma Thompson in The Tall Guy was a nurse in an understaffed NHS hospital. By the time of Notting Hill, the films would be characterised by a different kind of incongruity, such as the complete absence of black citizens in that film's west London setting. (Viewers of Love Actually should take heart. Many of the new film's characters have best friends who are black. Some of them even get dialogue.)

The governing principle behind his recent work would appear to be: We're all the same underneath. So you could be a gay man in an unfortunate waistcoat (Four Weddings and a Funeral), a multi-millionaire movie star (Notting Hill) or even the British Prime Minister (Love Actually) but that's not to say you don't have the same feelings as everyone else. The new film even ends with multiple images of people hugging - a chaste version of the split-screen sex that was such a naughty delight in Stephen Frears' Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. But there has to be more to a movie career than a declaration of homogeneity endlessly reiterated.

Divorced from all social and economic reality, the films assure us that love can conquer all, which is the common message of the romantic comedy genre, where love can blossom between a man and a mermaid (Splash), a prince and a showgirl (The Prince and the Showgirl) or a man and his keyring (Marco Ferreri's I Love You). But what Curtis's films fatally lack is the conflict of the most robust romantic comedies. How easy it is for love to conquer all when "all" amounts only to the difference between Britain and America.

For Curtis to continue ploughing his humble furrow, he needs America in more than just the commercial sense. His dithering British heroes are invariably defined by the presence of the Americans around them. That's the function of actresses like Andie MacDowell and Julia Roberts, but it also applies to the Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) who looks like a little-boy-lost next to the sinister president (Billy Bob Thornton) in Love Actually, or the hero of Notting Hill (Grant again) who is mistaken for a lowly porter by a boorish movie star (Alec Baldwin). A British actor in the romantic comedy genre will always look like the little guy when placed in the same frame as an American counterpart. The day that Curtis risks pitting his alter ego against someone of equal status could be the day he starts developing as a dramatist.

These films feel shallow because the most convincing love story on display is the one between the writer and his potential marketplace. This stopped being a case of big fish/small pond syndrome a long time ago. In Britain, Curtis is more like a whale languishing in a puddle. A film adapted from the doodles on his telephone pad would make it into the top ten hits of the year, so it can't be surprising that his attention seems focused more than ever on America. But he has no need to "crack" the States: he's done that. A Hollywood agent recently admitted, "It's hard to bet against Richard Curtis." Each of the last four films he has worked on, including Bridget Jones's Diary, which he co-wrote, has grossed over £100 million, with Bean and Notting Hill passing £200 million.

So what exactly does Richard Curtis want? In one way he's the walking fulfilment of Alan Parker's depressing announcement that British film-makers should reject the parochial in favour of the transatlantic. But then Curtis is lucky enough not to need to choose anymore: he has flogged his brand of Britishness across the world, no matter that it is as artificial as the images of pink-haired punk rockers on sale to tourists in Trafalgar Square.

Curtis says he'd like to make a movie that addresses a social issue (he's a fan of Lukas Moodysson's Lilya 4-Ever - about the child sex trade). But don't hold your breath; if Love Actually is anything to go by, he's feeling more business-like than ever. Curtis may not be anywhere near the peak of his powers, but he knows all the angles. Even as it's draped in the Stars and Stripes, the film emphatically waves its Union Jack. The picture is rigged to appeal to British audiences, especially those who never venture into the cinema. Curtis has cast some of the smaller roles from British television, and with each recognisable face that appears - Martine McCutcheon, Andrew Lincoln (Teachers), the pop-eyed Kris Marshall (My Family), the doughy Martin Freeman (The Office) - you experience the same slump that you get when a promising actor turns out to be mixed up in a sex scandal, or involved with the Church of Scientology: There goes another one.

Those actors will be balm for some viewers, as will the proliferation of cameos by TV celebrities such as Ant and Dec, Jo Whiley and Michael Parkinson, whose vocal acclaim the film has cleverly bought. Everybody wins - the audience is soothed by familiar performers, the celebrities are flattered that their popularity has been further ratified by this promotion to the cinema screen, and the film-makers can be certain that these double-agents will use their media outlets to endorse the movie.

But then the movie, like all Curtis's work since The Tall Guy, is nothing if not calculated. Its Christmas setting, guaranteed to ensure longevity in the form of seasonal television screenings for decades to come, is only the most obvious example. When Jarvis Cocker wrote "Disco 2000", he had the decency to confess that his inspiration came from contemplating the hefty royalties Prince would pocket - come the end of the decade - from the song "1999". In that sense, Love Actually will be the gift that keeps on giving, to the Curtis family if no one else.

But what did we expect? If there is a single scene which encapsulates this man's facile oeuvre, it's the dinner party in Notting Hill. In it, a group of troubled-but-happy Londoners quiz the Hollywood star Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) on her salary and her lifestyle. The scene is played entirely without irony, begging comparison with a near-identical moment in the excellent Six Degrees of Separation where a house guest purporting to be the son of Sidney Poitier is grilled by his anecdote-hungry hosts. That film explored the chasm between the lives we lead and the lives we yearn to lead, but no such disparity could be accommodated in a Richard Curtis script because it doesn't exist in his world.

Hugh Grant recently explained that Curtis has "this very rare thing of actually quite liking life." Isn't there a word missing from that sentence? It seems rather that Curtis actually quite likes his life. You can't blame him. But as the basis for a movie career it leaves something to be desired.

'Love Actually' goes on release on November 21