Love, Actually is one of those movies that, come December, you either embrace wholeheartedly, or avoid like the Bubonic plague. Aside from Andrew Lincoln’s wooing of Keira Knightley via Bob-Dylan style cue cards, the film’s most famous moment is a simple scene, involving little more than Emma Thompson and a Joni Mitchell CD. “Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel.” Emma Thompson’s Karen explains to her husband Harry (Alan Rickman), setting the stage for one of the best portrayals of heartbreak in recent cinematic history.
Moments before the family are due to leave for the school Nativity play, they decide to each open a gift early. Unwrapping what she believes to be the gold necklace she saw her husband purchasing in a department store, Karen’s gift is in fact revealed to be a Joni Mitchell CD. Her childlike excitement dissolves in an instance, as the implication – that her husband of thirteen years has purchased an expensive heart-shaped necklace for another woman – is swiftly and painfully realised. “To continue your emotional education,” Harry smiles, oblivious as to the searing, world-ending pain he’s just inflicted. The sight of someone who’s just emotionally had the wind knocked out of them trying to keep it together is agonising, and Thompson’s subtle performance is enough to soften even the flintiest of hearts.
Excusing herself, (“Do you mind if I just absent myself for a second”, which is British for “I’m just popping into the other room to have a private emotional breakdown”), we watch as Karen, now safely alone, succumbs to tears. Rather than throwing herself down in despair, Thompson stands stiffly to the left of a wide shot, and we’re reminded of the sheer loneliness of her situation. In a performance utterly devoid of melodrama, we see a woman whose life is quietly crashing down around her. All is silent, save for the melancholic strains of Joni Mitchell’s heartbreaking Both Sides Now:
But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away
Part of the power of Thompson’s performance is the actress’s own hand in shaping the scene. Writer and director Richard Curtis fully credits Thompson with the scene’s lasting emotional weight. “I didn’t do it. I just wrote that she goes upstairs, puts on the record, and lets the emotion show. Everything in that scene is just Emma.’ Indeed, Thompson unfortunately had real-life experience to draw on. “I had my heart very badly broken by Ken,” she explained in a 2018 interview, referencing her then-husband Kenneth Branagh’s affair with Helena Bonham Carter on the set of his 1994 Frankenstein adaptation, “so I knew what it was like to find the necklace that wasn’t meant for me.” As Karen heads back downstairs, she pauses in the hallway to allow herself one more private shake-down, before reentering the fray and resuming her facade of giddy excitement. It’s easy to see how Thompson’s very public heartbreak is analogous with a wife and mother’s attempt to hide her anguish from her family.
Alan Rickman played many despicable men in his illustrious career, but when a quietly heartbroken Karen confronts him about his infidelity after the play finishes, you’re left convinced that Harry is one of the most loathsome – at least the Sheriff of Nottingham never made Emma Thompson cry. It’s another brilliantly restrained scene, with Karen attempting to confront her husband and struggling not to break down in the middle of her children’s school. “You’ve made a fool out of me”, she tells him, her voice audibly cracking. “And you’ve made the life I lead foolish too.” It’s every Brit’s nightmare – having an emotional confrontation in a very public place – and as the words still hang in the air, Karen rushes to congratulate her children on their theatrical debuts.
Thompson’s performance in Love, Actually is a welcome dose of grounded reality in an often-saccharine film. We’re reminded that love stories don’t always last beyond their Happily Ever Afters. In a fluffy Christmas romcom, populated largely with wish fullfillment fantasies (a British Prime Minister publicly reprimanding a US President – imagine!), it’s this sharp, painfully real performance that stays with us after the credits roll.