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The Definitive Analysis Of ‘Love Actually,’ The Greatest Christmas Movie Of Our Time

“Love Actually,” the 2003 film that launched a generation of cinematic hot takes, is the story of nine interconnected relationships in the weeks ahead of Christmas in the United Kingdom. They’re united not just in their relationships but also by Heathrow Airport, a third space that bookends the film and is used by lowly tourists and prime ministers alike. It has a plotline for every moment in your relationship, from first crush to the grave, and the story covers all the holiday season staples: the Christmas party, the school pageant, the holiday songs. Plus, the cast is great, and the performances are solid — there’s a lot to like, actually. Yet by the time the credits roll, you may not have learned much about the titular emotion.1

To get to the bottom of this intricately structured Christmas classic, we watched the film and ruthlessly coded scenes — how long they were, who was in them, who spoke to whom — and pulled a big pile of box office data to figure out what happened to all of these nice, attractive actors after they wrapped up this movie that makes us all cry. Then we diagramed all of that using network analysis strategies recently applied to “Hamlet” and “Les Misérables” — you know, “Love Actually’s” literary equals — to find the most important character at the core of the film. (It’s not the manic pixie dream Mr. Bean played by Rowan Atkinson.)

The film has launched careers. Thomas Brodie-Sangster — who played Sam, the precocious kid who falls for the girl with the same name as his recently deceased mother — has gone on to appear as a regular character on “Game of Thrones” and as a lead in the ongoing Maze Runner franchise. Still, it’s the actor who played Sammo’s step-father whose post-“Love Actually” movies have made the most money. Liam Neeson’s parenting in the movie was questionable — encouraging a child to sprint through security toward an airplane post-9/11 is never good fatherhood — but Neeson’s later attempts at parenting were even worse, oftentimes resulting in the child being Taken. That awful parenting, though, led to an outstanding and lucrative franchise.

BOX OFFICE NUMBER OF FILMS
1 Liam Neeson $2.8b 38
2 Alan Rickman 2.5 20
3 Bill Nighy 2.2 36
4 Emma Thompson 2.0 26
5 Martin Freeman 1.4 19
6 Thomas Brodie-Sangster 1.2 12
7 Chiwetel Ejiofor 1.2 23
8 Keira Knightley 1.1 22
9 Rodrigo Santoro 0.8 21
10 Colin Firth 0.8 30
11 Billy Bob Thornton 0.6 24
12 Adam Godley 0.5 10
13 Laura Linney 0.4 24
14 Ivana Milicevic 0.3 13
15 Margery Mason 0.3 1
Whose movies after ‘Love Actually’ made the most money?

Source: IMDb

As for quality, the pair of actors in the crappiest relationship ended up making the very best films. Emma Thompson and the late Alan Rickman — each no doubt buoyed by their roles in the good half of the Harry Potter franchise, but icons of British cinema nonetheless — are at the top of the heap, according to the average IMDb rating of films that came after “Love Actually.”

AVERAGE IMDB SCORE OF FILMS NUMBER OF FILMS
1 Alan Rickman 7.0 20
2 Emma Thompson 6.9 26
3 Meg Wynn Owen 6.9 6
4 Martin Freeman 6.8 19
5 Chiwetel Ejiofor 6.8 23
6 January Jones 6.8 9
7 Keira Knightley 6.8 22
8 Thomas Brodie-Sangster 6.7 12
9 Liam Neeson 6.7 38
10 Julia Davis 6.6 6
11 Kris Marshall 6.6 5
12 Laura Linney 6.6 24
13 Bill Nighy 6.5 36
14 John Sharian 6.5 8
15 Rodrigo Santoro 6.5 21
Who made the best movies after ‘Love Actually’?

And it’s those enduring performances and staying power that sell this movie. Even if you are an emotionally dead monster, you have to admire how ably the screenwriters juggled the different plots for Neeson, Thompson, Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Keira Knightley, Martin Freeman and the other A- and B-list Brits who pop in and out of the movie. Plot the movie’s social network by how many scenes the pivotal characters shared,2 and you find that the linchpin of it all — the axis on which the world of “Love Actually” turns — is that schmuck with the cue cards, played by Andrew Lincoln. He’s the dumbwaiter in this “Upstairs, Downstairs” key party.

The network analysis also reveals two Londons in love: one young, one a little less young; one rich, one a little less rich; one white, the other pretty white as well.

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This tale of two cities is a mirrored one, with one side’s romantic narratives echoed in the other’s.

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In the plot that you probably remember, we watch Knightley’s character learn that her husband’s best man has been stalking pining for her from afar. Will she cheat on her spouse? File a restraining order? Let’s call her milieu London A. Over in London B: Cracks appear in the bourgeois life that Thompson’s character leads when her husband, played by Rickman, finds that his new secretary likes to vamp around whispering things like “it’s all for you, sir.”

wezerek-loveactuallydataviz-1220-3

Or how about a classic tale of boy-meets-and-ogles-girl-who-works-for-him? In London B, Grant plays the newly elected prime minister (he also happens to be the brother of Thompson’s character). Things start to go off the rails when he falls for the “chubby” maid on staff. If you can’t stomach that plot’s relentless fat jokes, there are fewer (but not none) in the London A version, where Knightley-wedding-attendee Firth takes the meet cute to the French countryside. In the movie’s only slow-motion scene, we watch the camera pan up and down Firth’s Portuguese housekeeper as she strips to her underwear before jumping in a lake.

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Not zany enough for you? In London A, the catering staff at Knightley’s wedding includes Kris Marshall, who can only be described as a randy derp (sample dialogue: “Try my lovely nuts?”). On the other side of the Thames in London B,3 Rowan Atkinson plays Rowan Atkinson, screwballing with Rickman’s character in a department store.

The movie ends with what amounts to a curtain call, summoning all the characters to the arrivals gate at Heathrow. It’s either a shiny bow on the ultimate Christmas comedy or a damning testimony that the movie has nothing to leave us with aside from ginned-up serendipity.

If you’re inclined to believe the latter, let us call your attention to the one major character who’s absent from the airport epilogue. Earlier, we counted how many scenes characters shared — Andrew Lincoln’s silent-but-treacly cue card guy was the linchpin of that “Love, Actually” — but the other way to measure social activity is to count how many different characters each actor has a conversation with. It’s here that Laura Linney, our absentee star, our emotional glue, rises to the top.

CHARACTER ACTOR SCREEN TIME CAST SPOKEN TO PRIMARY PLOT
Sarah Laura Linney 20m 32% Office tryst
Mark Andrew Lincoln 19 28 Cue cards
Karen Emma Thompson 32 24 The Necklace
Harry Alan Rickman 28 24 The Necklace
Colin Frissell Kris Marshall 11 24 Abroad
The PM Hugh Grant 31 20 10 Downing
Jamie Colin Firth 24 20 France
Aurelia Lúcia Moniz 18 20 France
Juliet Keira Knightley 15 20 Cue cards
Mia Heike Makatsch 13 20 The Neckalce
Peter Chiwetel Ejiofor 10 20 Cue cards
Daniel Liam Neeson 26 16 Drummer boy
Natalie Martine McCutcheon 25 16 10 Downing
Tony Abdul Salis 10 16 Abroad
Sam Thomas Brodie-Sangster 24 12 Drummer boy
John Martin Freeman 14 12 Stand-ins
Judy Joanna Page 14 12 Stand-ins
Karl Rodrigo Santoro 13 12 Office tryst
Rufus Rowan Atkinson 7 12
U.S. president Billy Bob Thornton 5 12 10 Downing
Billy Mack Bill Nighy 24 8 #1 Song
Joanna Olivia Olson 15 8 Drummer boy
Joe Gregor Fisher 13 8 #1 Song
Jeannie January Jones 4 8 Abroad
Sarah’s brother Michael Fitzgerald 1 8 Office tryst
Which characters spoke to the most other characters?

While everyone else is running around London, obsessed with their own problems, Linney stands as a rogue beacon of good will toward others. She’s there at Knightley’s wedding, asking the mopey best man if he needs a shoulder to cry on. She’s there at the Christmas party, reassuring Thompson, who is watching her husband fall for another woman. And she’s there for her mentally ill brother, whose incessant phone calls derail a long-awaited night under the mistletoe with Rodrigo Santoro’s abs.

Linney’s character is the one that truly straddles the two Londons. In a movie stuffed with redundant plots and permutations of the same stereotypes, there’s no character quite like her. If you find yourself forced to Grinch through a viewing of “Love Actually” this holiday season, treasure Laura Linney — she’s a bona fide Christmas miracle.

You can see all the data from our network analysis on our GitHub page. Ella Koeze contributed reporting.

Footnotes

  1. That’s love, for the record. Not confusion over missing commas.
  2. Rodrigo Santoro, Martine McCutcheon, Lúcia Moniz — there are a lot of “Love Actually” actors who we didn’t put in the chart above. That’s because they rarely cross storylines. When they do, it’s in the company of the actor who we did include, the linchpin of that plot.
  3. I have no idea if this happens on the other side of the Thames.

Walt Hickey is FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

Gus Wezerek is a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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