Focus: Love, shamelessly

You know what you're getting with Richard Curtis: romantic comedy, Hugh Grant and lashings of hype. The world's leading film historian assesses his seduction technique
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The Independent Online

All I wanted for Christmas was Richard Curtis, gift-wrapped with a broken cinnamon stick. And now I've got him, or have had him - which is too much like eating a whole box of chocolates for digestive comfort, and such a recipe for meeting cute people (endlessly) that I don't know whether life can ever be the same. But, still, working along the lines of the large metaphysical noun and a demurring attached adverb, I suppose you could call it Paradise Nearly or The Dodgy End of Wandsworth Shamelessly.

Love Actually is the new film from the Richard Curtis stable, except that this time he has directed it himself as well as written it. I do not use the word "shamelessly" casually (Truly Shamelessly Casually would not be a bad title), but let me just add that this is also a Christmas film (that great fake of a day is coming) which might turn Bob Cratchit into a serial killer simply to bring some merciful malice or cruelty to the world. The movie reaches its climax at a Wandsworth school nativity play where, among other cute meetings, the Prime Minister (Hugh Grant!) is revealed as in love with a pert Wandsworth girl with massive thighs (though those thighs are one of the few pieces of female anatomy not fully disclosed in the movie).

Yes, I know what a happy island kingdom this would be if Hugh Grant were PM and if he then found a nice Wandsworth girl (of the type that died out in the early 1930s). I can imagine present incumbents of that office aching with sheer lust and the untoppable campaign strategy of having such a bounteous assistant bringing him his chocolate biscuits. Love Actually is what you might call a roundelay if you were writing for a pretentious paper - or a panorama of the loving instinct if you were content to make its delirious and delicious self-absorption seem remotely plausible. Richard Curtis is very clever (or Emma Freud, his regular script helper, is); perhaps they both are. He has a simple but fertile premise: that love goes on all the time, that it's not really a steady state, one where people are in and stay in love (as in staying home tonight). Rather, it's a falling mechanism, and everyone likes falling, so long as you keep falling.

The engine of this film is the kind of magnificent fantasy that propelled Notting Hill: that, yes, the shabby book-seller might win the most beautiful movie star in the world - because, after all, though she's a star, she knows true love when she gets it. And most of the people here end pretty happily, with cuter meetings than you ever dreamt of - except that they are the mainstay of middle-class fantasy.

Curtis is a card sharp with cute, catchy short scenes that have to stop short of depth but have been put together with uncanny facility. He has a flirt's eye for pretty people - men and women alike - and a real ear for the rushed, nervy talk of unexpected yet wondrous meetings and revelations. To watch a Curtis film is just like Christmas shopping on Daddy's plastic - you want this, that and the other, oh and her, and don't bother to wrap them because you can't wait to get your hands on them.

There's a part of the rub: for while Curtis holds his hand on his heart for love (like a vicar offering the sacrament), the other hand is always stroking his hard-on - not just for the pretty people but for his own sinister skill at manipulating them.

Of course, he needs to be careful: you can't actually peddle love in the way he does without coming perilously close to such alarming words as betrayal, infidelity, promiscuity, suicide, pick your own poison. And you take a special risk if you hire in actresses as good as Emma Thompson. She is so quick and so full of feeling that she guesses the silly, sexy affair her husband is contemplating. Whereupon, in a look and a gesture, we're out of the territory of Find the Lady and into the dramatic pathos of "Send in the Clowns". There is a world of emotional maturity between the schtick called Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson's total commitment.

Love Actually is going to make a fortune - all in the tradition of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary. I must add that, for me, the sheer skill and play of the film could have gone on a lot longer. This is high-gloss entertainment such as Hollywood understood in the 1930s, and Ealing sometimes managed in its comedies of the 1950s. You can't believe you're going to fall for the sucker punches - because you have time to draw them in advance - but you do fall. And Curtis is one of the few film-makers around today who grasps the treasury of fantasy fulfilled.

A lot of people are going to have a ball, and that's fine - balls are out of fashion these days. I had a great time at the film, and was in a cheerful horny mood fit to woo all the women and most of the men. That, really, is the end-game towards which Curtis spins - not love, but promiscuity ready to lie its way out of any corner.

I'd love to see Curtis compelled to do a film about that endgame - but if that doesn't happen, then let's settle for the way this is Jean Renoir as done by Steven Spielberg at the age of 19. No, that's not perfect. But who else remembers Renoir? Or dreams to make films about human need and frailty?

'Love Actually' previews this week

Success that spun out of a beautiful laundrette: the production company with the golden touch

Love Actually is a film by Working Title, a company synonymous with the works of Richard Curtis, who has earned it hundreds of millions of pounds over the past decade. Four Weddings and a Funeral took £31.6m in the United States alone. It was followed by Notting Hill, which grossed £68.8m there. They are the two highest-earning British films of all time. Others have benefited from the golden Curtis touch too, including Bridget Jones's Diary, which he co-wrote from the book by Helen Fielding. It made £42.2m in the US.

Not surprisingly, Curtis has now been given the chance to pen sequels to some of Working Title's most lucrative hits. He has already scripted Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and is about to begin work on a follow-up to Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie, the big-screen outing for his and Ben Elton's madcap television creation, Mr Bean.

In the light of all this success, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Curtis is Working Title - but he is actually only a (very) glorified and (extremely) well-paid employee of the production company founded 20 years ago by Tim Bevan and Sarah Radclyffe. In 1985, it co-produced one of the seminal films of the Eighties, My Beautiful Laundrette, by the director Stephen Frears. Radclyffe left Bevan to run the company alone for a while, until his first big backer, Polygram, encouraged him to share the load with another independent producer, Eric Fellner. They make a formidable double act, although they tend to produce films individually. Despite its frothy reputation, Working Title has since championed the work of some of the most individualistic British and American film-makers, among them Derek Jarman, Tim Robbins, Sally Potter and Neil LaBute.

Of its transatlantic collaborations, perhaps the most successful have been its two films with the British director Stephen Daldry, Billy Elliot (2000) and The Hours (2002), and the succession of movies it has made with indie auteurs the Coen Brothers, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998) and The Man Who Wasn't There (2001). Working Title is now developing sequels to Johnny English, the James Bond spoof based on Rowan Atkinson's successful Barclaycard commercials, and next year will see a live action version of the puppet series Thunderbirds. But there will also be more rarefied Working Title films, such as a sequel to the idiosyncratic Oscar winner Elizabeth.

James Morrison