The late Nora Ephron was the undisputed queen of the romantic comedy. Her screenplays for such classics as When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail were sharp and insightful, and perfectly encapsulated the changing nature of relationships in America in the ’80s and ’90s. On this side of the Atlantic, though, nobody does romcoms like Richard Curtis.
It’s become fashionable of late to laugh at Richard Curtis. He’s been less than eloquent about his relationship with Emma Freud in the past, and these days Christmas wouldn’t be complete without a dozen derivative think-pieces about how Love Actually is a really problematic movie that nobody should enjoy (but that’s an argument for another day). Curtis’s films deserve to be remembered as classic love stories, for one simple reason: he understands British attitudes towards love – and everything else in life – better than just about anyone.
The criticism most often thrown at Curtis’s films is that they’re formulaic. It’s true that it’s almost always ‘boy meets girl’, and it’s also true that the boy and the girl are often variations upon a very particular theme. The boy is lanky, awkward, self-deprecating, and usually played by Hugh Grant. The girl is ridiculously beautiful, impossibly perfect, and (for some reason) often played by an American. Sure, it’s pretty much just a trope at this point, but it’s also a pretty accurate depiction of falling in love. Don’t we all, man or woman, feel like Hugh Grant when we first fall in love? Overawed and befuddled in the presence of someone so flawless that we have no idea what they could possibly see in us?
Look around the edges, meanwhile, and you’ll realise that Curtis is acutely aware that modern love exists in many different forms. Some of the strongest bonds Curtis has ever written are also the most unconventional. Of all the many stories that make up Love Actually, one of the sweetest is the bromance between aging rocker Billy Mack (the inimitable Bill Nighy) and his manager Joe (Gregor Fisher), awkwardly confessing on Christmas Eve that they simply cannot do without each other. About Time, arguably one of Curtis’s best films, is only pretending to be about Domhnall Gleeson’s Tim using time travel to win the girl of his dreams. Really, it’s a movie about the much deeper bond between Tim and his father (Bill Nighy once again).
If there’s one moment that stands out, however, it’s the death of Gareth (Simon Callow) in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Matthew’s (John Hannah) eulogy to his lover, which ends in a tearful rendition of WH Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’, is absolutely heartbreaking. But it’s also notable for the candidness with which Curtis presents this relationship between two gay men. It’s never used as a punchline by any of the characters, but nor is it placed on any kind of pedestal. It’s a simple fact of life that these two men have fallen in love with each other.
Nor is it true, as is so often stated, that Curtis’s characters live in a quaint idyllic world with no real problems to consider other than finding their true love. Certainly, his casts may lack something in the way of colour, but they’re interesting characters who often have serious issues to deal with: mortality and grief; temptation and marital infidelity; the cyclical nature of abusive relationships or the paparazzi and the public’s obsession with celebrity. They feel like real people, and so we really want them to find happiness. But, perhaps most importantly, they deal with these issues the way we would try to – with a stiff upper lip. They keep calm and they carry on, usually spouting a couple of perfectly self-deprecating one-liners as they do so.
Love is a difficult thing to translate to film. Between decades of Disney princesses waiting passively for their princes to come, films like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey confusing affection with obsessive or even abusive behaviour, and the growing pile of bland that is Nicholas Sparks’s entire career, there are plenty of examples of how not to do it. So what does Richard Curtis know that the rest of Hollywood doesn’t? Simple. He knows what real love isn’t.
Real love is messy, complicated, and more than a little awkward. It isn’t holding a boombox outside of your head on someone’s front lawn, or making pottery with them in a candlelit room, or any of the other romantic gestures we’re so used to seeing at the end of Act III. It’s a slow, creeping realisation that there is a person, or sometimes people, without whom your life would simply not be worth living.
And declaring it is as simple as a boy, standing in front of a girl, asking her to love him.