Hugh Grant in Richard Curtis’ British, Christmas-themed love-in Love, Actually (2003) is the pinnacle of his late 90s/early 00s star persona that had been curated in conjunction with Curtis over the course of several films. Opposite Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Julia Roberts in Notting Hill (1999) and Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) – all penned by Curtis, with Bridget Jones also co-written by Andrew Davies and Helen Fielding – Grant had become a dependable figure in British cinema as an affable, hopeless, harmlessly posh love interest.
In Love Actually, this culminates in the character of David, the newly minted prime minister who falls in love with his tea lady (Martine McCutcheon), stands strong in the face of a US strongman, and steals the limelight during a children’s Christmas concert.
In essence, Hugh Grant in Love, Actually is everything that Boris Johnson has been trying to emulate, and until recently, has seemed to convince most of the public too.
Johnson has long hinged his success – or at least a large element of it – on a public perception that mirrors many of the aspects that made Grant such a big star. Ruffled hair that is permanently disheveled beyond the point of parody, filler words littering his speeches which are often seemingly under-rehearsed and rambling about the subject with little relevance to whatever is meant to be happening – close your eyes and it’s not too difficult to imagine Grant talking to Julia Roberts about buses or Peppa Pig World. Instead of blagging his way through a press junket as staff for Horse and Hound as seen in Notting Hill, Johnson’s own journalistic career consists of disparaging single mothers as raising “ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate children”. Strong words for a man whose exact number of offspring has not been confirmed.
Curtis isn’t to blame for Johnson’s rise to power – there are far more complex factors involved – but, along with Johnson’s numerous hosting appearances on Have I Got News For You, Curtis did help cement the harmless poshboy in the public consciousness. An affected ineptitude is seen as endearing or funny, reinforcing a sense of relatability that stretches across fairly insurmountable class boundaries.
Through his quirks, Johnson tries in many ways to project the unkempt, rambling, yet ultimately harmless Grant persona. It is only in the last few months that this perception has truly started to derail, thanks to a combination of pandemic mismanagement, government corruption allegations, and the ongoing lockdown party debacles which increase by the day, among others. The public, and more importantly the media, has lost patience with the clown routine, and Johnson’s seemingly never ending charm has finally started to run dry. In the world of Love, Actually, David making out with his subordinate at a Christmas concert – and then later at the airport in the epilogue – is portrayed as endearing rather than lecherous, but would he face a similar fate if he was caught up in a series of scandals?
The key difference between the Johnson and Grant personae is the way in which these personality components are deployed – Grant’s rambling and general unkemptness are sweet and endearing because he is almost always proved to be a nice person by the machinations of the film. Johnson only ever uses these qualities as a way of deflecting criticism, and completely lacks even the merest suggestion of a spark of humanity behind his eyes that makes Grant’s characters throughout his peak romcom years interesting or likable.
Like David in Love, Actually, Johnson enters the festive season in trouble; the prospect of guiding his popularity ratings upwards after some fairly damning revelations and resignations probably sounds fairly idyllic to him right now. For Johnson, a fall in popularity ratings is always relative, given his overall popularity with the public and with an Opposition Leader who has failed to hold him to account at any given opportunity. But with a potential vote of no confidence looming in the new year, he might just be wishing for his own Christmas miracle.
It feels aspirational to think he could unite the country with a single speech like David does, and Curtis’ non-partisan imagining of a prime ministerial figure makes this possible in Love, Actually. David is never identified as belonging to either Labour or the Conservatives (although he is pretty clearly modelled on Tony Blair – a whole other story), or really having any identifiable policies that could sway the film into any kind of outright political conversation.
Partisan divisions are often contentious and seem insurmountable in many respects. But when it comes down to the nitty gritty aspects of modern British life and culture, the default position of defending any criticism with a ‘list of things Britain has given the world’ crosses all political barriers. David’s rousing speech that lists off Britain’s achievements like a precursor to the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony might not be able to save Johnson from his current predicament, but it’s not hard to imagine it being said by either side of the spectrum to widespread applause from political commentators, with very little material criticism.
In 2021, this benign neutrality of David no longer seems like a comforting absence of real life problems intruding into the festive fantasy world of Love, Actually – instead it only serves to highlight how much the political conversation has changed in the twenty two year since the film came out. Among stiff competition, it might be the element of Love, Actually that has aged the worst.