I feel it in my fingers. I feel it in my toes…
Love Actually season is all around, folks!
I first watched this romantic comedy freshman year of college. Living in an all-girls dorm building, not a day went by where I couldn’t hear it playing in at least one room on my floor. It just became one of those films people quoted all the time (usually in an accent that ironically sounded more Bostonian than British).
“I hate Uncle Jamie!”
“Don’t buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them for free!”
“There was more than one lobster at the birth of Jesus?”
Although this 21-year-old classic is my favorite movie for nostalgic reasons, I have struggled with aspects of it since becoming a parent and caregiver.
Quick note: I acknowledge there are MANY problematic parts of this film, and there are many excellent articles out there discussing them. For the sake of this blog post, however, I am going to focus on Laura Linney’s character, Sarah, and her storyline.
Sarah is an American expat in London. She has an obvious crush on her coworker, Karl, but hasn’t worked up the courage to tell him. She is always on her cell phone talking with someone, but we don’t know who is on the other line. Sarah and Karl slow dance at their workplace Christmas party, eventually leaving together. Their romantic evening is cut short, however, by the incessant phone calls, drowning out Nora Jones with the worst ringtone in the history of the early aughts.
We learn Sarah’s brother, Michael, is the mystery caller. He is in a mental healthcare facility, and she is his only family. It is evident that Sarah is the only one her brother truly trusts, and he depends on her reassurance – whether in person or over the phone – to stay regulated and calm. Sarah and Michael spend Christmas together, and Sarah and Karl remain platonic coworkers. She has chosen caring for her brother over romantic love.
In the sequel short, Red Nose Day Actually, we learn that Sarah is now happily married (to People’s 2023 Sexiest Man Alive Patrick Dempsey, no less!) and is a mother. There is absolutely no mention of her brother, however. None. Like he never existed.
I know: There was a lot of story the writers needed to fit into a 16-minute movie/ad for Red Nose Day. But they did find time to mention she has a cat. Couldn’t they have acknowledged her brother, Michael, in some way, even just a photograph on the fridge? We don’t know if he’s even alive.
In ABC News’ 20th anniversary Love Actually special, director Richard Curtis shared that this storyline was in part inspired by his sister’s mental health history. He says, “It [Sarah’s role as a caregiver] is a duty, but it is also such a profound version of love: the thing which is absolutely promised, absolutely permanent, absolutely unconditional.”
Later, as Curtis (rightly) praises Linney’s performance, he says, “It’s all there in the face of a woman torn between her devotion and her dreams.”
I think that’s what frustrates me most about the Sarah storyline: The fact that she has to choose between caring for herself and caring for her family member, and she has no one supporting her. It doesn’t have to be EITHER “caregiver” or “woman leading a fulfilling life”. Why can’t it be both?
I would have loved to see Dempsey’s character in the sequel mention something like “I booked Michael’s followup appointment with the neurologist.” It would be the perfect nod to his most famous role – Dr. McDreamy – while also showing that he is actively participating in the caregiving duties.
This Christmas, take a moment to recognize the caregivers in your own life. See if they could use a hand in some way. My book, Show Up and Bring Coffee, offers a variety of easy support suggestions.
And if you, like me, find yourself with mixed emotions about Love Actually, know you are far from alone! R. Eric Thomas (one of my favorite humor writers) had this to say in his 2020 book Here For It:
“There is not a moment of my day, actually, when I am not irate about Love Actually…. That movie makes me so angry, and yet every time I watch it (once a week from October through May), I’m like, ‘This is so me. This is so true.’”