There’s a Lot to Learn From ‘Love, Actually’

Doctor NerdLove surprises even himself in recommending the Christmas romantic comedy “Love, Actually” as a source for dating and relationship advice.

There’re very few Christmas movies that get watched at stately NerdLove Manor. There’re only so many treacly impassioned peons to the Hallmark idea of the holidays that my constitution is willing to take, so I keep my holiday viewings to the Holy Trinity of Christmas Movies: Gremlins, Die Hard and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.

I may need to start adding Love Actually to the mix.

Love Actually was a 2003 holiday film with an astoundingly (British) star-studded cast—Bill Nighy! Chiwetel Ejiofor! Colin Firth! Hugh Grant! Alan Rickman! Emma Thompson! A pre-zombie-apocalypse Andrew Lincoln! A whole bunch of people I don’t know at all but are probably really important in the UK—all about love and family and what it means over the holidays.

To be perfectly honest, I was prepared to hate it. I’ve mentioned how I feel about romantic “comedies” before: they’re mawkish and unrealistic, following characters who make unwise decisions and rewarding men for not growing or changing and generally sending all the wrong messages to the audience.

So imagine my surprise when not only was this movie genuinely sweet and realistic about relationships, but it also managed to avoid my rom-com pet peeves.

(Well, except for one.)

“Hope it was worth it son. Because you’re about to go to jail for a long, LONG time…”

This really is a movie that guys could learn a few things from. Things like…


There’s A Fine Line Between Clever and Creepy – Colin (Kriss Marshall), a would-be raconteur and wit with a… well, a face even a mother might have some issues with, prefers to try to woo women with his scintillating dialogue and snappy reparte. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t quite know where the line is when it comes to his jokes and trips over it with glorious abandon on a regular basis. Whether it’s calling the attractive secretary his future wife (she doesn’t appreciate it) or telling guests at a wedding that the hors d’oeuvres resemble slices of baby feet, it seems that the only thing his mouth is good for is sticking his foot in it. Some people are masters of using offensive humor effectively. Others are not. And if you don’t work on your social calibration very carefully, your attempts at being funny are going to lead to a lot of blank stares and awkward silences at best.

You Can Find Love Anywhere –  John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page) are a couple of freelancers, a pair of working stiffs working at the same job. There’s an almost instant chemistry; they’re incredibly comfortable together almost immediately and they can chat with the sort of ease that usually comes with a life-long friendship.

Oh, and they’re both nude body doubles for a graphic sex scene in an upcoming movie.

Love is, literally, where you find it.

You’re Not Fooling Anyone – Mark’s (Andrew Lincoln) in love with Juliet (Keira Knightly). Sarah’s (Laura Linney) in love with Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). Sam (Thomas Sangster) is feeling the pangs of first love for one of his classmates. All of them think that they’ve managed to conceal their affections from the rest of the world… except everybody can see it. And they’re perfectly willing to call them out on it. In fact, in Sarah’s case, it’s become a running joke that everybody in her office knows… including the man she’s in love with. Mark manages to fool Juliet and her new husband by being cold and stand-off-ish, but the rest of his friends can tell, and his feelings are abundantly clear in his work.

Both Sarah and Mark might have saved themselves some stress and heartache if they hadn’t spent so much time concealing how they feel… and along those lines

You Need To Make A Move – Sarah has spent nearly three years pining for the handsome Karl1, spending long lonely nights alone and tending to her mentally ill brother. Nearly three years of silently suffering all of the pangs that come with unrequited love instead of coming forward and asking Karl out. Similarly, Sam is convinced that Joanna has no idea he’s even alive and is content to let himself agonize over her instead of trying to talk to her. If he had, he might have found out that she’s known who he was all this time and even thought he was pretty cute. Mark felt that he had lost the game before it had even started; Juliet was dating—now marrying—his best friend in the world, which left her in forbidden territory. But instead of making his feelings known early and getting the awkwardness out of the way, he bottled them up and crippled what might have been an incredible friendship.

Communication Is More Than Words – I’ve mentioned before about how much of the way humans communicate is non-verbal , and nowhere in the movie is this more emphasized than between Jaime (Colin Firth) and Aurélia (Lúcia Moniz). Jaime speaks no Portuguese and Aurélia only knows individual words in English, but the way they behave around each other helps bridge the gap. Jaime – a writer – may not be able to use his words to convey who he is, but his actions do the all of the talking for him. It doesn’t take very much for Aurélia to learn that he’s a genuinely warm and caring man. Similarly, Aurélia finds him charming if a bit silly, and her attraction to him is telegraphed in her body language and the way she putters about helping him. Words can be pretty and they can do a lot of work for you, but it’s your behavior that will tell the real story.

Novelty Is Sexy – Colin has become fed up with English women. As far as he’s concerned, they’re all prim, stuck up twits who couldn’t appreciate a quality guy if he were to dump a tray of canapés on her. His solution? To head to the distant shores of America where surely his British accent will leave him knee-deep in sex.

Not surprisingly, he’s right. As many a Briton, Aussie, Scot or Irishman have learned, having an accent in America goes a long way towards getting people’s interest up and running.

Novelty and exoticness are attractive traits in people and tweaks at the primal part of our brains. The new and unusual signal that an individual is from outside the tribe and brings fresh genetic material into the mix, highly desirable traits for helping to weed out recessive genes that are expressed through too much inter-breeding. Of course, it also helps that…

Sexy Stereotypes Work – The trio of bar bunnies that take Colin back to their apartment aren’t interested in Colin as a person; they like what he represents. Similarly, Sam understands that women love musicians… just like Billy Mack (Bill Nighy). These stereotypes are a sort of short hand for what the person might be. Musicians are confident – an attractive trait in any man – and showy; on the strictly primal, instinctive level, they represent status and viability. Like the peacock with the most radiant plumage, they demonstrate that they’re able to thrive in a hostile world. They offer status, which in turn means that they offer both protection, access to food and can provide for mates and offspring. Sam may only be 10 years old, but becoming a drummer still means adopting that stereotype… which in turn helps get Joanna’s attention.

Yes, those sexy stereotypes mean that people aren’t perceiving them as a person at first… but then again, sometimes a man isn’t just a person, he’s also a piece of meat.

There Is No “One”– The idea of a person’s “one true love” is romantic, but that romance rarely matches up with reality. While it’s tempting to declare that someone is The One, the sole person that the lovelorn will ever have such feelings for, in real life people can and will love many people over their lives. Daniel (Liam Neeson), mourning the loss of his beloved life, insists that she had been The One and that he’ll never find another like her… but then he meets Carol, another single parent at his son’s school.

Love Doesn’t Mean That It Will All Work Out – Sarah has loved Karl since the day she started work. She has a lot to offer; she’s attractive, smart and successful at her job, and Karl clearly finds her attractive as well. However, life tends to be complicated… and some people aren’t going to be willing to handle those complications. Sarah, you see, also has to care for her institutionalized older brother Michael (Michael Fitzgerald). Taking care of him can mean that her life can be interrupted at any moment. Moments such as when she is finally about to consummate her love for Karl.  While Karl seems like a nice guy, it also is abundantly clear that he’s not quite ready for the complications and difficulties that would come part and parcel with dating Sarah. And as much as she wishes she could, Sarah understands that she can’t just ignore her responsibilities to her brother when it’s inconvenient. As a result, Sarah and Karl never make it as a couple. Love is a powerful thing, but life is more so.

Love Doesn’t Mean You Won’t Be Attracted To Others – Harry (Alan Rickman) and Karen (Emma Thompson) clearly have a deep and abiding love for one another. It’s abundantly clear throughout the movie that the two of them love one another madly and there’s no question that Harry would never leave her or their children. However when Harry’s secretary, the sultry Mia (Heike Makatsch), begins to flirt with him in increasingly blatant and sexual ways, even Harry can’t deny the attraction or her appeal. And it’s understandable; love doesn’t mean that you won’t desire other people. Humans are not hardwired for monogamy, and monogamy is incredibly difficult. The half-life of passionate love is between six months to a year. Sexual passion in a long-term couple will ebb and flow over the years; there will be long dry spells where neither partner are particularly interested in the other sexually, and there will be times when suddenly they won’t be able to keep their hands off one another. In any relationship, the thrill of a new crush can be intoxicating and it can inspire both men and women to make bad decisions. Harry’s attraction to Mia doesn’t mean that he loves Karen any less… it just means that he’s human and he’s caught up in the rush of the new.

Love Comes In Many Forms – On the heels of his triumphant rise to the top of the Christmas singles charts, has been rocker Billy Mack realizes that, to his surprise, his manager Joe (Gregor Fisher) is in many ways, the love of his life. There may not be a sexual component to their love, but that doesn’t make their affection any less heartfelt or real. It’s only when Billy is celebrating his return to cultural relevancy that he’s realized that the person who’s shared most of his life’s triumphs and tragedies is Joe… who is closer and ultimately more important to him then any of the starlets or nameless groupies who’ve shared his bed throughout the years.

You Need To Earn Your Happy Ending – The triumphs of the lovers in Love Actually isn’t because “love conquers all”. It’s because they all worked for their goals. Colin sold his apartment in order to finance his trip to America. Sam practiced at drums day and night in order to impress Joanna, and it was Daniel’s effort in supporting his son that ultimately lead to his meeting Carol. Billy Mack put great effort into promoting a single that he would cheerfully admit was shit, even though he was only in it for the money. Jaime took intensive study courses in Portugese so that he would finally be able to talk to his beloved Aurélia… and we see that Aurélia has similarly been putting time into learning English. Mark may have had to give up on Juliet, but it’s clear that not only have they cleared the air but that the three of them are fast friends – a far happier ending than Mark forcibly keeping his distance. And despite his foolish actions around Mia, Harry and Karen have put time and effort into saving their relationship and they have clearly reconciled by the end of the movie.

It hasn’t been easy for any of the characters; their path to their happiness in the epilogue has been paved with blood, sweat and sometimes literal tears. The most important message of the film is  that nobody gets the love they want for free. It’s only when they are willing to put in the effort – sometimes even in the face of incredibly daunting odds – that they are rewarded. Love isn’t simple. Love isn’t easy. Love doesn’t come easily, it doesn’t come without pain and it doesn’t come with out work.

But in the end it’s worth it.


Originally appeared at Paging Doctor NerdLove

About Harris O'Malley

Harris O'Malley provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr. NerdLove, as well as writing the occasional guest review for and appearing on the podcast The League of Extremely Ordinary Gentlemen. He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and Twitter (@DrNerdLove.)

Dr. NerdLove is not really a doctor.


  1. Colin RENTED out his apartment to pay for his ticket to America. My fav movie. In a review the facts have to be there, otherwise how can anyone trust your analysis which is actually severely simplistic and hallmark commercially superficial. Passing off Sarah’s mentally ill brother as a ‘complication’ is completely against the entire premise of the film, even though it is one of Karl’s lines, the viewer sees beyond that into the burden Sarah bears alone and that achieving a relationship of reciprocal love on any level is entirely circumstantial. Humanity, love and pain at once, and the flaws that we all try to live with whilst living with each other. The different forms of love. And that for some there isn’t nor will ever be a happy ending. Had to share- been analyzing this film every Christmas for a decade.

  2. I enjoyed the movie. The one interesting insight I might have (if I am lucky) had to do with this part of the storyline:

    Communication Is More Than Words

    What struck me as sappy was that these two people who can’t communicate find this attraction to each other and were basically communicating the same things to each other, even though neither could understand what the other was saying (that is: the dialogue shows that they were thinking the same things and their dialogue would actually make sense as a converation if they understood what the other was saying).

    But, then it struck me: they seemed to be the two people who were communicating most honestly with each other, and they only felt the freedom to do that because they knew the other person could not understand what was being said.


  3. warm, fuzzy, feel good, vague, good for nothing advice.

    Good movie though.

  4. Last sentence:
    The most important message of the film is that nobody gets the love they want for free. It’s only when they are willing to put in the effort – sometimes even in the face of incredibly daunting odds – that they are rewarded. Love isn’t simple. Love isn’t easy. Love doesn’t come easily, it doesn’t come without pain and it doesn’t come with out work.

    But in the end it’s worth it.

    Except that sometimes it’s not worth it, as pointed out just above Love Doesn’t Mean That It Will All Work Out.

  5. I LOVE this movie. I unashamedly admit it. 🙂

    But I’m old and wise enough, to acknowledge it’s mostly unrealistic (mostly but not 100%).
    Nevertheless, it’s fun and entertaining, and it makes your heart swollen, warm and fuzzy! 😀
    It makes you feel good, and positive and hopeful… (unless you’re too cynical sbout realtionships).

    True, you cannot get it literally as “dating advice”, but most of what Dr. Nerdlove said is true; at least, you can get inspiration from it. Sure, love doesn’t conquer all, but if you put your very best into it, it might be worth it.
    Way better than gazing at your navel and whine over your misfortune, isn’t it? 😉

    The only story in it that I dislike is the Colin’s one (the guy going to America): is totally unbelievable, kind of porn-movie-unbelievable. 😉
    All the rest… some of it might be unlikely, but still possible. Not less likely than most movies anyway.

    And, do not forget the “Love” the movie is talking about, is love in its widest sense; not just the romantic one (although the movie focus mostly on it, obviously).
    The message of the movie lies in its opening and closing scenes, shot at airports; where you can see that, if your eyes are open enough, love is actually all around you. 🙂

    In this new Millennium, with all the drama and uncertainty and troubles, I can hardly see anything more positive and life-inspiring.

  6. romantic comedy and dr nerd love article, two worst source for learning about love

  7. All I can say is that there was some fine acting – mainly Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, but Emma does shine.

  8. Sorry, but romantic comedies are a BAD source of relationship advice. That’s the last source you want to consider.

  9. An article promoting this film as sound dating or relationship advice is not worthy of featuring on this site.

    #the prime minister romance storyline is ridiculous.
    # Colin Firth proposes to a woman he barely knows and could have easily embarrassed her in front of her family and friends.
    #the best friend/wedding video guy that is obsessed with Keira Knightly is borderline stalker. Furthermore, expressing his feelings in such a grand gesture way is bound to lead to much awkwardness in the future and he clearly doesn’t care too much about his best friend as he basically places a bomb under his marriage.
    # the little kid storyline teaches us that men have to overachieve in ordert o have a shot with women. Overachieving is good, but not if the goal is so absurd.
    #Trying to promote something that is clearly unworthy to see the light of day, such as the Christmas song, is in no way commendable.

    These are only thd storylines I remember from the movie. It is fun to watch but its contents should under no condition be taken seriously.

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