Love, Actually review: Bill Nighy still steals the show

LOVE ACTUALLY

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M, 135 minutes

Director Richard Curtis

Stars Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Billy Nighy, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney

They call it "Curtisland". It's the cosily romantic vision of Britain which emerges from the films written by Richard Curtis. His winning streak began in 1994 with Four Weddings and a Funeral and peaked almost a decade later with Love Actually, which is re-released this year as a Christmas cinema treat.

"Curtisland" has its detractors and they've been very voluble over the years. The Guardian has disparaged it as being inextricably linked to New Labour and Tony Blair, which means that it's "perfectly relaxed about the filthy rich, much more in love with sentiment than ideas and insatiable in its optimism".

The less discriminating of us simply enjoy being in it because it makes us feel better.

And it's not all sweetness and light. Along with Curtis's taste for self-deprecation, there is his creative way with four-letter words. When his characters are in disarray, as they often are, they find great consolation in deploying the "f" word in all its cases and conjugations. In this area, his only rival is Armando Iannucci, creator of the gleefully scabrous political sitcom The Thick of It.

And you can't ignore Curtisland's success in attracting stars. Regulars Colin Firth and Hugh Grant are in Love Actually. So, too, are Curtis's old friends Emma Thompson, Rowan Atkinson and Alan Rickman???, along with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney. And showing great prescience, he cast Keira Knightley???, Martin Freeman (The Hobbit), Chiwetel Ejiofor??? (Twelve Years a Slave), January Jones (Mad Men) and Andrew Lincoln (The Walking Dead) in the younger parts.

Best of all, the film has Bill Nighy???, getting a real opportunity to show his long-neglected comic talents as Billy Mack, an old rock'n'roller snorting with amusement at the success of his own comeback. Billy can't stop telling everyone how absurd it is - a display of candour that turns him into a chat show sensation.

In typical fashion, Curtis has been just as frank in analysing his own own gifts. His beginnings in sitcoms and sketch comedy, he has said, led him to construct scripts "by trying to put in as many funny bits as possible and make them resemble a plot" - or rather nine plots in the case of this film. While most of the characters are related in some way, their storylines are self-contained. We skip from one to another with the film's pop soundtrack underlining every emotion.

Naturally enough, some work better than others. While it's not entirely impossible to buy the idea of Grant as Britain's prime minister, it's harder to go along with a Cinderella story which has him falling for his tea lady (Martine McCutcheon).

Neeson, too, is mired in cuteness as the recently widowed Daniel, who distracts himself from his grief by playing the agony aunt, advising his 11-year-old stepson on the undeclared crush he has on a girl in his class. Linney is wasted in an underwritten role as Sarah, whose love for her mentally ill brother conflicts with her long-awaited chance for romance.

Firth has a much cheerier time of it as Jamie, a novelist whose courtship of Aurelia (Lucia Moniz???), who knows no English, is conducted in a series of tersely witty subtitles. Thompson and Rickman, who died last year, are wonderful - in a politely repressed British way - as a long-married couple whose relationship is about to sustain a body blow.

A lot of the film's pleasure is in the playing. The whole cast is adept in the art of deflection, filtering the Curtis's blatantly sentimental message through layers of deadpan understatement. As I've said, it's not entirely rinsed free of schmalz but 14 years on, it still works. Happy Christmas.

Love Actually screens at the Openair Cinema in Sydney on December 17, openaircinemas.com.au; and in Melbourne at the Moonlight Cinema on December 19, moonlight.com.au

This story Love, Actually review: Bill Nighy still steals the show first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.