When I was a child, there was a list of films that I believed to be unquestionable Christmas classics. We’re talking movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. While I do think the majority of those are undoubtedly good movies, there wasn’t much frame of reference for me to draw from when I was young. My parents loved them and put them on pretty regularly, so I just went along with it.
As I got older, and more specifically in my teenage years, I started to take a deeper interest in film and film history. I began to read professional criticism of movies. One of the most common themes I came across was that of the Christmas movie being a dud. While appreciation for the saccharine nature of holiday films has thankfully changed in the last 20 years, there is one concept that I still agree with to an extent: ensemble holiday films are trash.
This is what made the prospect of a film like Love Actually so worrisome. Why did anyone think this would be a surefire hit? Did no one get the memo that Christmas movies were garbage and that cramming in a bunch of A-lister celebrities would doom the project from the outset? In 2003, I was 15 years old, so I wasn’t even all that interested in romantic comedies, let alone Christmas-themed ones.
Against my better judgment, I saw the movie opening day in theaters and found it to be pleasant. I didn’t think it would ever become a holiday classic, but there was a charm to seeing big-time British actors cutting loose in an edgier comedy than normal. It also helped pave the way for many of those actors to make the jump to Hollywood, which is always a plus. Still, I figured by the time I was in college, no one would remember Love Actually and it would just be that movie I saw on a whim in my youth. How wrong I was.
Why am I bringing up Love Actually out of the blue? Well, Universal has just released a new 4K UHD Blu-Ray of the film to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Thanks to them, I was given a copy of the movie to give a quick evaluation for you guys and while I don’t think the upgrade is worth it, I can’t deny that owning Love Actually makes me a little happy. I’m still puzzled by its now “classic” status, but upon rewatching this for the first time since high school, I can understand the appeal.
Possibly the most notable thing about this film is that it proved the R-rated comedy had mainstream appeal. Made on a budget of $40 million, Love Actually would end its theatrical run with $248 million globally. While it was a moderate hit in the United States, it was a tremendous one internationally and it even became one of the highest-grossing R-rated films up to that point. While 2004 would be the tipping point for raunchy comedies with The 40-Year-Old Virgin leading the way, Love Actually gave studios the confidence to greenlight similar projects.
That extra edge is certainly what separated the film from the pack back in 2003, as well. I had already seen several R-rated films at that time (I have some very bizarre memories of my mom taking me to Jay and Silent-Bob Strike Back and being weirdly uncomfortable the whole time), but the marketing around Love Actually never gave up the ghost. I expected some schmaltzy lovefest and was greeted with characters dropping F-bombs and others meeting on the set of a film as stand-ins for a sex scene. It certainly made a bold first impression.
As well as being the catalyst for R-rated comedies to finally get their due, Love Actually reignited a desire for studios to create ensemble movies again. While you could claim these films never truly went away, the number of Love Actually copycats that cropped up in the wake of this film’s success is ridiculous. Look at films such as Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, Mother’s Day, and He’s Just Not That Into You to see what I mean. Love Actually might be a bit dated, but those films feel positively ancient in direct comparison.
That last one should probably be a crime we charge Love Actually with, but you can’t blame studios for wanting to make lightning strike twice. I think the biggest reason this particular film had such a strong grab over mainstream audiences is that every actor in the film is charming and gorgeous. You have heavy hitters Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, and Colin Firth, but even the lesser-known (at the time) stars such as Keira Knightley, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Martine McCutcheon, and Rodrigo Santoro are delightful to look at. We might be in an incredibly sterile era of filmmaking where sex is basically nonexistent, but Love Actually is just dripping with sexuality and hotness.
For many, too, Love Actually was the first time they saw such an unashamedly British film. There had been other smash-hit British films before this, most notably Bridget Jones’s Diary (of which Love Actually director Richard Curtis wrote the screenplay), but Love Actually doesn’t play into any American sensibilities whatsoever. We do get one American character, played by Laura Linney, who attempts to navigate the British way of love, but the only other plotline that mentions the USA is one where a British man goes overseas to find some hookups. It’s hardly a film about America or Americans.
What struck me the most upon this rewatch is just how tender Love Actually can be. I still find the film to be way too long for its own good and full of plotlines and character arcs that could be summed up in 15 minutes, but Liam Neeson plays a man who just recently lost his wife. In an effort to not dwell on the darkness that is inhabiting his life, he helps his 12-year-old son confess his love to a classmate. Going back to Laura Linney, her character can’t seem to make time for love as she is dealing with a brother diagnosed with an unnamed mental illness. This realness gives a relatability to Love Actually that a lot of romantic comedies completely forgo.
So, while I don’t personally consider Love Actually a quintessential film for everyone’s collection, I can understand why it has become a holiday staple for many. It has become such a phenomenon over the last two decades that a follow-up of sorts was made in 2017 to commemorate the original. Titled Red Nose Day Actually, it follows up with most of the cast 14 years later and acts as a small epilogue to the original. It’s not the best thing you’ll ever see, but if you’re a huge fan of the original, it’s certainly worth a watch.
Strangely, this follow-up is not included on the new 4K UHD Blu-Ray. In fact, the only new featurette of sorts is a “Making Of” documentary that runs 30 minutes. For all intents and purposes, this new disc is a repackaging of the previously released 10th anniversary Blu-Ray, just in 4K resolution. I mean that almost quite literally as I had some real trouble discerning whether or not I had the right disc in my player. Universal may have “upgraded” this film to a higher resolution, but the picture quality is barely what I’d consider Ultra HD.
I did some further technical digging and found that the file size of the film for this new release is just 43 GB. That might sound big to those with no frame of reference, but that is a fairly typical size for a long film on a regular Blu-Ray. Most UHD discs will have films twice that size if they are encoded properly. In fact, the bitrate is also similarly low, with Love Actually coming in at around 36 MB/s. Once again, that’s similar to a regular Blu-ray bitrate whereas UHD films typically average around 70 MB/s and can even pass 100 MB/s.
None of that really matters if the film master is handled well and Love Actually looks okay. In motion, it’s not a poor experience, but it definitely doesn’t justify the $28 MSRP. It’s especially wild when the regular Blu-Ray can be had for $6 on Amazon US. Then again, the new release does include not only the regular Blu-Ray but a digital code for redemption on Movies Anywhere or VUDU. That’s worth something.
Disappointing 4K presentation aside, Love Actually has rightfully earned its place as a modern Christmas classic. I may never fully gel with the movie or come back each year to watch it, but I can see popping it in from time to time to take myself back to my youth. While Love Actually has stood the test of time, it’s funny to see that similar films are not being made anymore. The big R-rated comedies from 2023, No Hard Feelings, The Blackening, and Joy Ride, didn’t manage to do much business and it seems like audiences are over these types of movies.
If you find that prospect sad and want to lift your spirits up, maybe buying Love Actually will be the perfect gift to do so. The film is available now on Blu-Ray, 4K UHD Blu-Ray, and digitally.