There are a few scenes that come to mind when thinking about Love, Actually in a vacuum, and they all revolve around music: Bill Nighy singing an abysmal Christmas-themed cover of Wet Wet Wet’s ‘Love Is All Around’; Hugh Grant dancing around Number 10 Downing Street to the Spice Girls; Emma Thompson quietly weeping as ‘Both Sides Now’ plays. But maybe the most (in)famous of all of them might be the coup of the Andrew Lincoln/Keira Knightley plot, as he stands outside her house, using cue cards and a lie about carollers in order to confess his love to the woman who’s just married his – supposed – best friend.
The afternoon before I sat down to write this, a friend told me about a standup set she saw at a music festival; Lulu Popplewell, the actress that plays Emma Thompson’s daughter – the lobster in the nativity – mentioned in an offhand interview comment, that the gender politics of the film had aged badly, and as a result, she received a torrent of abuse on social media. Of course, she’s right – and getting attacked for this is pretty telling in itself – and one of the things that captures how the “romance” of this not-so-romantic comedy has aged, is seen in Lincoln, and his eye-rolling declaration of love.
Andrew Lincoln is essentially a Nice Guy in Love, Actually; best man at his friend’s wedding, a companion and confidant to his new bride (who he just happens to be in love with), right until he isn’t, and he decides that he has to reveal the truth to her. But only after she finds some of the wedding footage that he’s shot, in all of its voyeuristic glory, the eye of his camera following her around like she’s a Hitchcock blonde about to meet an untimely end. Because the more you sit and think about Love, Actually, and the more time passes from its initial release, the more its sweetness turns bitter, and it becomes clear that Lincoln’s Nice Guy isn’t very Nice.
But what’s interesting here is that, rather than simply being a Bad Guy, what he really is is a kind of cinematic ground zero, the point from which a new brand of toxic Nice Guy has emerged on screen. In the decades(!) since Love Actually came out, the entitlement and insecurity of Nice Guys has been laid bare; the longer a sitcom goes on, the more its male leads become exaggerated versions of this idea: from Leonard in The Big Bang Theory to the most famous example of the trope, Ross in Friends (1994-2004).
The new approach to the Nice Guy isn’t just to acknowledge that they aren’t that nice, that their Niceness is toxic, but to bring that toxicity front and centre. Netflix’s You – a show that works primarily because Penn Badgley’s Joe is charming and charismatic, and that you want to fuck him – spends its first season showing how the Nice Guy functions as a mask for sinister intentions. And then there’s Promising Young Woman (2020), the divisive rape “revenge” movie that took a bunch of Nice Guy Actors and showed that their Nice Guys were toxic, violent, and unrepentant. And none of them would exist without Andrew Lincoln in Love, Actually. These guys share the same notions of romance; public, grand, things that a woman basically can’t say no to (out of embarrassment, out of fear), and as these guys are revealed to be at once more knowingly toxic, and more outwardly violent, the slippery slope from Lincoln to Goldberg becomes crystal clear, and the reality of what these women aren’t always able to say no to becomes impossible to ignore.