When it comes to the holiday romantic comedy genre, one movie stands above the rest in its popularity and staying power: Love Actually. As a quintessential rom-com, we expect the “love” that they often refer to both in the movie’s title and the famous introductory voiceover to be about the many couples in the story. Over the nearly twenty holiday seasons that have passed since Love Actually‘s premiere almost two decades ago, the movie is revisited time and time again. The holiday season is often accompanied by discourse about which couple in Love Actually is the best, which romance is the fan favorite, and which previously idealized relationship seems increasingly problematic as time passes. In reality, though, the best representations of unconditional love in Love Actually aren’t the romantic relationships at all. Instead, it’s the other, more understated relationships that really represent love.


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Non-Romantic Love Shines in ‘Love Actually’

Love Actually is known for how it intertwines many stories. Multiple love stories play out simultaneously as viewers slowly discover just how the storylines are connected. One scene reveals that Sarah (Laura Linney) is friends with Mark (Andrew Lincoln); other breadcrumbs lead us to discover that Karen (Emma Thompson), Daniel (Liam Neeson), and David (Hugh Grant) are all siblings, and so on. Within the web of the many relationships in Love Actually, there are seemingly endless lower profile relationships to uncover. Still, at the film’s close, when the now famous Heathrow Airport opening gets its heartwarming bookend, the stories tie up neatly, and the audience is mostly satisfied by the romances that played out and how we leave the couples en route to happily ever after.

Since there are so many relationships and storylines in Love Actually, it’s no wonder that which couple is the favorite among fans is notoriously polarizing. David and Natalie (Martine McCutcheon) are seemingly the couple at the heart of the movie. Some love the unorthodox sparks between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), while others argue that what seems like soulmates in that situation is actually shallowness. Many even argue that Juliet (Keira Knightley) and Mark are the front-runners for best representation of “love,” though fans on that side of the fence can easily make their way into a heated debate. What’s not so often argued, though, is the case for Love Actually‘s non-romantic love. The love that prevails over the others are the love stories throughout, and they aren’t about romance, at all.

Sibling Love Prevails in ‘Love Actually’

Laura Linney as Sarah in Love Actually
Image via Universal Pictures

Sarah’s story in Love Actually is a difficult one to forget and also one that seems to leave us with an unhappy ending. In fact, it’s hard to watch Love Actually without feeling like there’s some sort of strange underlying blame placed on Sarah for prioritizing another kind of love over romance. Sarah is in love with her coworker, Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) for years when they finally get together at an office Christmas party, and Karl goes home with her. She’s interrupted repeatedly to answer the phone for her brother who seems to be in a psych ward and feeling particularly overwhelmed. It’s clear that Sarah is caring for her brother, and despite Karl’s urging for her not to answer the phone, she does every time. There’s an implication that Sarah misses her opportunity for romantic love here, though many could argue that she’s right to pass up this opportunity and wait to find someone who respects her admirable priorities. Either way, Sarah is left without a romantic ending, but she has still prioritized love in her life above all else. In that way, she and her brother both have a love-filled and realistic ending.

Karen’s Maternal Love in ‘Love Actually’

Emma Thompson as Karen with son in Love Actually

Image via Universal Pictures

Another Love Actually storyline that is memorable and feels unsatisfying is Karen’s. Karen is a dedicated wife and mother when her husband, Harry (Alan Rickman), has an affair with a coworker. She finds a necklace that she believes is for her, but when opening presents, she discovers that he got the necklace for someone else and instead is gifting her a Joni Mitchell CD. Arguably the most poignant part of Love Actually happens when Karen retreats to the bedroom and puts on her new CD, taking a moment to cry as “Both Sides Now” plays. The scene only cuts briefly to show Mia trying on the necklace.

It’s easy to assume during this scene that Love Actually intended to put some weight behind that word “actually.” It suggests that the loves of this film aren’t like in the movies; rather, they’re how love actually is. In a situation like Sarah’s, where she loves someone who can’t be bothered with being patient with her, or like Karen’s, where she loves someone who hasn’t kept up his end of the love bargain, we get glimpses of love “actually.” Both of these characters seem to lose out on the “love” and are left with the “actually.” Yet, like Sarah, Karen also ends up a winner in her own way. It’s clear that this scene is particularly important to Love Actually; it’s very different in pacing and feeling than any other moment in the film. Viewers feel almost as if they enter a time warp with Karen as she tries to collect herself and come back down to earth. When she does, though, she dries her tears, straightens her bedspread, and goes to get her children ready for their Christmas pageant.

Surely this is a relatable moment for mothers, but more so, it’s noteworthy that Karen’s love for her children allows her to not ruin a school play over an earth-shattering revelation. When this storyline wraps up in the airport during the final scene, it’s unclear whether or not Karen and Harry are together. Either way, though, they clearly aren’t happy with each other. The implication is that Karen hasn’t ended up with love, but if you have something to ground you in the darkest moments and a reason to fight to stay strong, then that’s arguably a more powerful manifestation of love than many romances.

‘Love Actually’ Values Friendship

Bill Nighy as Billy Mack and Gregor Fisher as Joe in Love Actually
Image via Universal Pictures

There’s another noteworthy storyline in Love Actually that has something unique to say about love, in particular. Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) has a storyline that’s very different from the others. In the end, most of these characters have found themselves in a romantic relationship. Billy Mack finds love, too, but in an entirely different and unexpected way: when he professes his love for his manager, Joe (Gregor Fisher). Billy is a notorious playboy and womanizer who spends most of Love Actually mocking Joe in ways that verge on verbal abuse. Yet, at the end of the day, Billy admits that his relationship with the friend who is always with him is actually the one he values the most. Seeing an example of this kind of love is so important in a movie about love, especially around the holidays. This love is very different than romance, surely, but also important. This kind of love is about recognizing the value of certain people in your life whom you don’t usually recognize.

‘Love Actually’ Finds Love in Grief

Liam Neeson as Daniel and Thomas Sangster as Sam talk on bench in Love Actually
Image via Universal Pictures

Of course, one of the most heartwarming storylines in Love Actually is the one that follows Daniel and Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). While it’s easy to attribute the impact of this storyline to its wholesome take on young love and how cute it is when Sam runs through the airport to get to Joanna (Olivia Olson), this storyline is really less about the bond between the kids and more about a stepdad and stepson helping each other through grief. Of course, plenty of fans would note this particular storyline as one of the most important threads in Love Actually, but it’s especially important to note what makes this storyline uniquely poignant. It’s an illustration of love that is powerful and relatable and one that we rarely get to see.

When listing the examples of love in Love Actually, many fans and annual re-watchers would think of David going door to door in search of Natalie or Jamie learning Italian to propose to Aurelia. And, sure – these are quintessential romantic comedy moments. But, if we’re thinking about love “actually,” the moments that shine through have nothing to do with romance but are still all about love.

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