Specs & The City: Romance and ‘Love Actually’

As is the case with most writing, sometimes I write this column, and other times the column tells me what it wants to be about. Last week’s look at integrating holidays into your script lead to a lot of talk online (have I mentioned how much I love Twitter?) about various Christmastime favorites. There was a huge variety of films offered up for discussion, but one that almost everyone mentioned was Love Acutally. Time and again it was mentioned as a film that not only exemplified what a holiday film should be, but also as one of the most romantic modern movies out there.

This got me thinking about romance.

Romance is modern films feels nearly dead to me, and what passes for it these days is riddled with cliché and a lack of respect for its audience. On the one side, you have the romantic-comedy, which has devolved from the spirited back and forth of Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story to the cinematic Mad-Libs of such dreck as Fool’s Gold, Failure To Launch, 27 Dresses, and just the other week, Playing For Keeps.

It’s a simple formula really. Cast a couple of good looking actors looking for a paycheck (Gerard Butler, Matthew McConaughey, Katherine Heigl), add a wacky best friend, stir in an “unusual” occupation, have everyone break into a song at some point, and voila, you’ve got yourself a movie. The overused formula has gotten so old, that even devotees of the genre are starting to stay away at this point.

On the other side of the spectrum, lie the romantic dramas. You know, the one where either tragedy keeps two lovers from being together, two lovers are torn apart by tragedy, or tragedy is the end result of the love two people share for one another. These films are as riddled with cliché as any mediocre rom-com, and it has gotten to a point that even the films not based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, feel like they were.

You can spot these films in the wild by their poster, which will almost always feature someone holding someone else’s face.

What both sub-genres have in common is a reliance on formula, the death knell for achieving any true emotion in your script. Which brings me back to…

Romance and ‘Love Actually’

Written by Richard Curtis, Love Actually has every right to be a complete mess. It’s got an overly large ensemble cast, and a saccharine Christmastime setting, and more than a few idiosyncratic characters. But instead of wallowing with the other films of this type, it rises above. Why is that? It’s really no great mystery. The story treats its characters as real people, with real problems. It doesn’t speak down to its audience, instead asking them to trust in the film’s vision. And it doesn’t end neatly. While no plots are left dangling, the film also doesn’t ask us to believe that all of these people end up together in the traditional sense.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the storyline of Juliet (Kiera Knightly), Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Mark (Andrew Lincoln before he got an American accent and started wallowing in the blood of the undead in The Walking Dead). For those that haven’t seen the film, or need a refresher on this particular plot, Mark is in love with, and has been for some time, Juliet, the wife of his best friend. Over the course of the movie, they squabble – she thinks he doesn’t like her very much, while he acts aloof in order to protect himself and his best friend from his feelings – and then the status-quo is upset when she discovers the truth. Pretty standard, right? I mean, there wouldn’t be much of a story if she didn’t find out.

Now, in your standard Hollywood fare, Peter (the husband) would either be a huge ass, be cheating on Juliet, maybe even die. Something would happen to make it okay for the inevitable – that Juliet and Mark are going to end up together and live happily ever after. But that’s not the case here. Curtis is too clever, and respects his audience too much for that.

What we get instead is an admission; a silent moment where Mark reveals his true feelings. Standing in the doorway, Christmas carols blaring, he moves through a series of cue cards telling Juliet everything. What’s heart wrenching and so very romantic about this moment is the fact that he knows he isn’t going to get the girl, and he doesn’t want her at the expense of his best friend, he simply can’t go on any longer without her knowing how he feels – “Because it’s Christmas (and at Christmas you tell the truth)”. That’s a scene of true love, and keen awareness on behalf of the characters. And it’s a scene of sacrifice. It’s done in a unique and engaging way that doesn’t feel forced. We believe the moment. We believe the characters. In short, we believe the love.

And that’s the key. Can you evade cliché? Can you make your moments feel true and earned? Can you deliver your romance in a new way that doesn’t feel like a gimmick? That’s when you’ll really have something. And when enough writers figure that out, we’ll see true romance return to the movies.

Now get writing!

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