You could argue about the moral ambiguity of Love Actually for days. All of the men “win” the women as prizes! Hardly any of the women even talk! But there are many Curtis fans who are willing to to let these criticisms slide. Despite the criticism, there are those who believe that while Love Actually is a product of its time, it’s still a decent film with diverse storylines of romantic relationships. Perhaps that’s why we’ve been able to ignore the fact that Keira Knightley was just 18 when she was cast in the film – until now.
The revelation of Knightley’s age at the time of filming sped through Twitter over the weekend, with many fans of the film confused by the idea that she is only five years older than the actor who played Sam – the cute little boy struggling through his first crush on a girl at school.
The storyline played out by Knightley’s character, Juliet, has always been problematic and, over the years, it has been rightfully critiqued for its underlying themes of obsession and stalking. All of this is forgivable to an extent – 2003 was a different era, there was no #MeToo movement, there are much worse films to get angry about. But, when you factor in that Knightley was just 18 when she was thrust into this complicated “romantic” storyline, the film gets that little bit more unsettling. In light of that, Juliet’s story is worth a quick recap.
We first meet her on her wedding day to Peter, whose best man, Mark (played by Andrew Lincoln), has arranged a surprise in the form of a full band and choir belting out All You Need Is Love. Mark is also in charge of filming the big day. So far, so sweet.
It’s later, when Juliet pops round to Mark’s house to pick up the wedding tape, that things start to get a little dodgy. “They’re all of me,” she says, watching the extreme close-ups of her face Mark filmed all day and, because this is a love story, Juliet takes Mark’s obsession with her as a compliment. Mark and Juliet’s story culminates in one of the most “romantic” scenes in the movie, where the lovelorn stalker turns up at her house and tells her he loves her, through the romantic medium of giant cue cards. Despite having shown no interest in Mark beforehand, Juliet runs after him and kisses him.
When Knightley turned up for the Love Actually audition, Curtis told her, “I want that belly-button piercing in my film!” In 2003, a revelation like this was not a revelation at all – that was how directors spoke of young actresses; post-Weinstein, however, his comment jars.
Here’s some context – Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Juliet’s husband, Peter, was 26 at the time of filming and, while this is an age gap of nearly 10 years, it’s not wildly unthinkable that an 18-year-old and a 26-year-old would have a relationship. Some might think that’s a little early to be thinking of marriage, but stop judging – we don’t know their lives before Richard Curtis got hold of them. Mark, however, was played by a 30-year-old – making his creepy filmmaking and subsequent chasing of an 18-year-old more than uncomfortable.
And then you hear why Knightley was cast in the role. In an interview with The Telegraph back in 2003, the actress tells of how Curtis had first noticed her as a football-playing teenager in Bend It Like Beckham, which came out a year earlier. It was her flat, tanned stomach that did it, apparently, and when Knightley turned up for the Love Actually audition, he told her, “I want that belly-button piercing in my film!” In 2003, a revelation like this was not a revelation at all – that was how directors spoke of young actresses; post-Weinstein, however, his comment jars.
Knightley has herself recently spoken out about the types of film roles women are exposed to in modern cinema. “I always find something distasteful in the way women are portrayed [in films set in the modern day],” she told Variety. “I’ve always found very inspiring characters offered to me in historical pieces.” She says things are changing, though, perhaps in part thanks to the anti-sexual-harassment movements dismantling Hollywood one abuser at a time: “I’m suddenly being sent scripts with present-day women who aren’t raped in the first five pages and aren’t simply there to be the loving girlfriend or wife.”
We can’t go back and change Love Actually – but, maybe we shouldn’t. The film serves as a warning to directors. We live in a new world. It’s not OK to cast 18-year-old girls opposite 30-year-old love interests.