The problem with being a secret Richard Curtis fan

The trailer for Comic Relief’s Love Actually sketch has been released. Caroline O'Donoghue discuses the awkward place that Richard Curtis' work has in film

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

If you want to start a fist fight at The Pool, all you need to do is bring up Richard Curtis. 

Every time, it splits the room. There have been raised voices over About Time (“He TRICKS his wife into fancying him!”), The Boat That Rocked (“They TRICK a woman into sleeping with someone she doesn’t want to sleep with!”) and, unfailingly, about Love Actually. “Every storyline basically ends up with man-wins-nice-woman-as-a-prize!” the Curtis haters will say. “And can we talk about how creepy the placards scene is?” 

Me, I tend to be a Richard Curtis apologist. Like a lot of women, I accept that it is my responsibility to fight for female causes during the day, and my right to take off my bra and watch America’s Next Top Model at night. My brain is like an exotic bird that, every now and then, just needs a blanket thrown over its cage so it can get some sleep.

For me, Richard Curtis films occupy the middle space between solid, challenging entertainment with diverse roles for women and people of colour (see: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) and cheap, possibly exploitative, popcorn viewing that I watch and don’t tell anyone about (see: Say Yes To The Dress). Does Richard Curtis write almost exclusively about middle-class white people in North London? Yes. Is he good at it? Also, yes. The dialogue is snappy, the stories are well told and all of it is filmed so cosily that its like having a soft blanket draped around you while you drift into a sofa sleep. It doesn’t matter that it’s a bit dated and unrealistic, because it’s all so goddamn nice. 

And, then, there’s the Love Actually reunion – the forthcoming Comic Relief skit that, while only 10 minutes long, has released a trailer that has already enthralled the nation.

Love Actually is like the film equivalent of eating an entire panettone: at the time, it feels rich and decadent and seasonal, but when you think about it for longer than a minute, you realise you’ve just eaten a loaf of bread for no reason. You feel stodgy and gross, and you realise those raisins weren’t raisins at all – they were weird plot lines, insensitive fat jokes and a confounding lack of LGBTQ people for what is supposed to be a film about modern love. Almost everyone realises the flaws inherent in Love Actually and almost everyone watches it every year regardless. 

But do those same people – the people who walk into the room while Love Actually is on, explain why it’s crap and sit down to watch it anyway – actually want an update on where the characters are now? Do we really need an updated “a friend who bullies us is no longer a friend” speech from Hugh Grant’s prime minister, when our current prime minister has proved that a “friend” who bullies anyone but us is absolutely fine? Does anyone actually care whether Colin, the wet rag who lives in a parallel universe where American women are charmed by the way English men say “bottle”, is still shagging American women? Will anyone feel more narratively satisfied if they find out whether Colin Firth ever published his shit book which he fished out of the river? 

Why bother with films about 1960s pirate radio when the knockabout comedy about 1960s pirate birth control is yet to be made? 

There’s no room here to tell a new story – we’re just “checking in” with everyone. And it’s for Comic Relief, so what the hell, something good will come of it regardless. And whatever comes of the "reunion" skit, it has already become so fashionable to dump on Richard Curtis' work that I'm sure half of Twitter is already composing eye-rolling zingers to condemn 10 minutes of film. He's in a bit of a bind: any efforts to update his storylines to include non-white, non-hetero people will be seen as approval-seeking tokenism; any attempts to stick to the blinkered London of the original will be seen as nausea-inducing nostalgia. 

But, like a lot of closeted Richard Curtis fans, I can’t help but wish that his comeback could consist of something that looked ahead, rather than perpetually behind. Four Weddings And A Funeral might have had a drab romance at its centre ("Is it raining? I hadn't noticed"), but the film itself – the frantic, late-twenties urge to tie the knot, the smart satire of bougie wedding trends, the tight-knit bonds of the urban family – felt revolutionary. Notting Hill may have been all gloss and fantasy, but it still holds up because you believe in the deep loneliness and isolation of the two lead characters. Curtis’ talents – which are considerable, regardless of whether you like his films or not – could be so beautifully used if his view of the world (and of London) could be updated to reflect one that people really live in or, at least, to tell stories that actually matter. Why write about another white dude falling in love when you could be writing the British equivalent of Hidden Figures? Why bother with films about 1960s pirate radio when the knockabout comedy about 1960s pirate birth control is yet to be made? 

Curtis is still retired from the world of filmmaking – 2013’s About Time was his last, he said – but perhaps dipping his toe back in the water with Love Actually will whet his appetite. Personally, I think Curtis has a few shots left to fire. I’m not asking for fireworks or Academy Awards or groundbreaking, gritty new stories. I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to entertain her. 


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