In Love Actually/Hate Actually, Great Boos Up discusses each story in the movie and puts it on trial in an attempt to grapple with his enjoyment of the movie versus his own acknowledgement of its problems.
The Defendants: Harry, Karen, and Mia
Which Story Is This? Harry (Alan Rickman), who we met briefly in the Sarah/Karl story as Sarah’s boss, has a story of his own to tell, as his secretary (Heike Makatsch) proposes to start an affair with him. But Harry is already married to Karen (Emma Thompson, the invincible queen of loveliness), who notices his attraction to Mia. Harry buys an expensive bit of jewelry for Mia, which Karen finds and assumes is for her. When she opens Harry’s actual gift to her, it turns out to be an unusually thoughtful gift coming from Harry, but she is heartbroken and confronts him after their children’s Christmas pageant.
Problematic Content: 2/5. Mia leans pretty hard into the sexist trope of the “devil woman” who leads a “decent man” astray; I mean, she is wearing literal devil’s horns at one point. And sort of along the same lines as the Sarah/Karl story, it seems terribly conspicuous that this, the only other story where a woman is a lead (I’d call her co-lead with Harry), also ends with her heartbroken.
Character Issues: 2/5. Mostly for Mia, and it’s the reason she comes off as a trope. I really want to know why she decides to have an affair with her boss. Is it a power thing? An age thing? I’m not going to say people didn’t find Alan Rickman attractive,1 but she really has no motivation, and so it seems like, “I’m going to wreck up this marriage,” just to be the villain of the piece, which ends up making it feel like the story is cutting Harry too much slack; that he’s a decent enough guy tempted by the vile seductress.
Frustrating Execution: 2/5. The ending is weirdly ambiguous. Karen asks if the necklace is just flirting, if it’s sex, or if he actually has feelings for Mia. First off, I always assume he’s just given her the necklace but hasn’t actually slept with her or anything, although maybe that’s just my own read and sort of wanting Alan Rickman not to be all-the-way cheating at this point. But he doesn’t really answer the question.
And then, at the airport reunion scene, Harry comes back from…someplace we’re not told about, he and Karen have a companionable greeting, and she says, “I’m fine. I’m fine.” I never know what to make of this. Are they separated and he’s coming back to visit the kids, and she has resolved to be agreeable towards him? Was he merely on a business trip and he and Karen are sort of working things out? I don’t even know that this story would be improved by having more space, I just want like one or two lines so I know what the resolution is. In fact, it sort of makes me wonder if this was done on purpose to pass the buck of having to judge Alan Rickman. If so, Richard Curtis, how dare you, you coward.
Comedy and Charm: 4/5. Unlike the Sarah/Karl story, which is heavy business with a few flashes of humor to lighten things up, this is actually pretty evenly comedy and drama. There’s the kids’ wacky, decidedly irreligious Christmas pageant costumes (like First Lobster), and Harry trying to discreetly buy Mia a necklace before Karen spots him, only to be thwarted by Rowan Atkinson as a shopkeeper.2
I absolutely adore how irritable Rickman’s character is in this. He seems to exist in a constant state of dread and irritation, which I can relate to. “Oh Christ, you haven’t got some horrible six-foot, tight-T-shirt-wearing boyfriend?” The bit that always cracks me up is when Joni Mitchell is playing in their living room, and he suddenly asks with disgust, “What is this we’re listening to?” As if he’s never heard his wife’s favorite musician but is instantly passing judgment.
Drama and Poignancy: 5/5. There are a lot of nice, subtle touches to Emma Thompson’s performance, but everyone remembers her big showstopper where she excuses herself after not getting the necklace. Blames it on the ice cream. And then after confronting Harry after the pageant, Karen immediately pulls it together for the kids. Damn.
Does It Make You Believe in the Power of Love? ?/5. I honestly don’t know. Again, it goes back to the male protagonists having these outsized stories about love against odds, and here we have a very believable, “realistic” story where reality kind of crushes Karen the way reality crushes Sarah. But they are at least amiable for the kids, so maybe it’s the power of love for your children? Maybe the lesson is just don’t be a fucking chump and run around on Emma Thompson.3
ACQUITTED. Frustrating in many ways but also very good and probably the most well balanced of the stories.