Utterly Frivolous Holiday Movie Question
December 24, 2017 2:35 PM   Subscribe

It's Christmas Eve, and so our thoughts turn to cheesy Brit romantic comedies...

So, in the holiday classic "Love, Actually," Emma Thompson's character is crushed to discover that the fancy necklace she knows her husband (Alan Rickman) purchased was not for her. We, as viewers, know it was for his secretary -- who has been making it clear she's interested in him, wife or no.

Based on the balance of the film, including and especially Thompson's final line ("It's good to have you back", spoken when picking Rickman up at the airport, but COME ON), I've always read this as (a) Rickman was tempted to the point of making this extravagent gift, and intended to begin an affair, but upon discovery realized what a fool he was and abandoned the plan before any physical consummation; and (b) Rickman and Thompson preserve their family and work together to move past his foolish act.

This is in keeping with the generally romantic tone of the film, where everyone gets a reasonably happy ending (even if you don't like Laura Linney's choice).

HOWEVER, a friend of a friend on FB is SURE that Thompson is cold and distant at the airport, and that the marriage is over, largely because Rickman absolutely slept with the secretary.

Which is the more common interpretation? I'm pretty sure the text itself is ambiguous, but the cues, performances, and overall tone of the film have always made me think the more hopeful version was intended. In fact, this person on FB is the only person I've met who disagrees. And so I come here, to figure out if interpretations vary more than I realized.

This is, truly, important work.
posted by uberchet to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I always assumed that from the middle of the movie onward, he's already sleeping with the assistant and that Emma's welcoming him back from his imposed absence for the sake of the family, but with no joy. I don't think she's cold, but that she's appropriately distant, and that their marriage is over but their family is not. Because that's the person she is. Just like she cried in her bedroom, but preserved Christmas for her children. He ruined her life, but she's going to protect her children so they never know the anguish their father caused her. It never once occurred to me that he didn't sleep with the assistant or that Emma will ever trust him again. But it's love, actually, for her kids that brings her to this selfless act.

And Laura Linney's "choice" as you call it is even more depressing. Two women selflessly swallow their misery because of the heartbreak caused them by two men. Rickman had a choice; Linney's brother didn't. But both women are doing all the emotional labor because of the love they have (for Emma's kids, for Laura's brother). I freakin' love this movie, but it never occurred to me to have a more upbeat take on it!
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 3:01 PM on December 24, 2017 [14 favorites]

My take is in the middle: he consummated it, and, after som time away, ET is willing to work on their marriage, even if she hasn’t quite forgiven him yet. That’s obviously just an interpretation, but it’s the sense I get (just watched again this week).
posted by AwkwardPause at 3:02 PM on December 24, 2017

My interpretation is the same as AwkwardPause's.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:15 PM on December 24, 2017

I don't think Rickman ever slept with the secretary. I think the necklace reveal opened his eyes to the "classic fool" he'd been, fantasizing over her and allowing her attention to boost his ego, etc. But that was all it was.

And Emma booted him for good reason, to give them time and space to take stock of the relationship; and they are trying to work things out but he is (justifiably) being required to display some appropriate level of contrition and there are Changes Being Made.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 3:18 PM on December 24, 2017 [9 favorites]

I always thought it was purely an emotional affair, Rickman getting a little ego bump but never actually going through with it.

At the end, they are still together, but I'm pretty convinced that it wasnt forever, just until the kids had gone off to uni or something. My partner had the same interpretation, apparently independently since we've never discussed it before.
posted by threetwentytwo at 3:24 PM on December 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

I've always interpreted it as you do. He gets drawn into the affair to the point of making the gift, which damages his relationship when it's discovered. I interpret "it's good to have you back" as her acknowledging that he started to wander, but is working his way back to his family and to her. I mean, who knows what happens off screen, but the overall hopeful and schmaltzy tone of the film makes me think we would need to see a lot more evidence of a physical affair to read that into the text.
posted by MadamM at 3:25 PM on December 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

I always assumed he slept with Mia. That’s when he would have given her the necklace. At the end, at the airport when Emma Thompson says good to have you back, there is a sadness in her eyes and face. She looks away from quickly. Part of her died. Agree with The Wrong Kind of Cheese; she’s holding the family together.

The Emma Thompson storyline always make me cry. I’ve seen variations of that scenario too many times IRL.

The Laura Linney story line is too sad too. I’m disappointed that she and Eduardo Corrochio didn’t try to find a way to make this work. I felt like there was too much burden on her; Alan Rickman calls her in to his office and tells her to sort it out, but she’s already dealing with her brother on her own. Why didn’t Carl go with her to see her brother that night?
posted by stellathon at 3:31 PM on December 24, 2017 [10 favorites]

I agree with your FB buddy. Lots of evidence to support this reading:

At the end of Rowan Atkinson's amazing "would you like it... gift wrapped" scene, Harry does not actually buy the necklace, because Karen surprises him. This means that Harry goes back to the store, off-screen, and buys the necklace at a later date. So the necklace wasn't just some spur of the moment purchase, but rather a deliberate one.

There is a quick little scene, which I'm struggling to find a clip of, where Mia (the secretary) is in front of her bedroom mirror trying on the necklace. No Harry in sight, but the bed is rumpled behind her. Given how delighted she looks, I take this to be pretty much immediately post-sex.

When Karen confronts him directly, Harry does not deny anything. He just says, "I've been a fool."

Karen is quite cold in that final scene. The kids are overjoyed -- Dad's obviously been away for more than a weekend, maybe a few weeks? -- but Karen barely smiles, looks like she's about to cry, and says "Home" with all the enthusiasm of a visit to the dentist. The movie sets her up to be all about her kids (remember when she's on the phone with Liam Neeson's character who is breaking down about his wife's death, and she basically hangs up on him to hear her daughter's Big News of being second lobster in the school play?) so it's very believable that she would choose to stay in a loveless marriage for the sake of her kids.

And what's more, the Word of God (aka the script writer) confirms that he slept with the secretary.

(Strangely, I think this deepens the message of the movie, and avoids Hollywoodification, where every love story has a happy ending. That's not what life is. I also wish they had kept in the storyline about the school head whose partner is dying of cancer. Apparently I just like my love stories to be drizzled with lots of sadness.)
posted by basalganglia at 3:35 PM on December 24, 2017 [12 favorites]

I didn't think they stayed together until it was confirmed during the reunion thingy where they gave Laura Linney a "happy ending." I always assumed he was just coming back from somewhere for his usual time with the kids because they maintained a healthy family unit. There are lots of reasons to stay together, not the least of which is that she's the Prime Minister's sister and the press is vicious there, but this was an upsetting revelation for me, especially because it was Emma Thompson.
posted by provoliminal at 4:15 PM on December 24, 2017

Dude definitely banged Mia. She is shown with the necklace on in her bedroom and looking very satisfied. I also interpreted the airport scene as Emma’s character being glad in terms of keeping the family together but heart broken by him.
posted by joan_holloway at 4:26 PM on December 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

He completely slept with the secretary and Emma Thompson’s character said “it’s good to have you back” because they stayed together anyway and that’s what one is supposed to say at an airport. The Love in her timeline is the one she has for the kids.
posted by kimberussell at 4:57 PM on December 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Your interpretation is mine.

But who doesn't like Laura Linney's choice?! That's one of the best parts of the film.

Possible chatfilter: cf Emma Thompson's character and Dolly in Anna Karenina.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:39 PM on December 24, 2017

I'm amazed anyone could interpret their scene at the airport as happy. To me they read as being distant and either headed for divorce or headed for a strained and unhappy marriage. He definitely gives the secretary the necklace, we see her putting it on.
posted by cpatterson at 7:20 PM on December 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

The more I have thought about it, the more I am convinced that he was sleeping with Mia since before the movie started. The necklace was supposed to be kicking things up to the next level ABOVE casual sex. But that at the end, he and Emma Thompson were kind of trying to work things out. Their storyline is the sad one.
posted by hammurderer at 7:23 PM on December 24, 2017

Writer/director Richard Curtis's wife Emma Freud says yes, they actually slept together. I think I'd heard somewhere, too, that Rickman didn't like having to be that villainous. Maybe the movie commentary?
posted by mochapickle at 8:44 PM on December 24, 2017

Laura Linney depressed me. She's so married to her brother, or at least to the idea of literally dropping everything for her brother the second he does anything ("No, I'm not busy!" YES YOU ARE BUSY) , there just plain isn't room for anyone else even on date one. I suspect she thinks her brother will kill himself if she doesn't answer immediately and maybe at some point in the past he actually did try to because she didn't, but I'm not sure what guy in the world would be able to deal with that level of dedicated/obsessive care and being dropped constantly every time brother gets upset.

I know I watched that Red Nose thing and saw that Laura Linney ended up with Dempsey, but I don't recall if they ever mentioned if her brother was still around? Is that same level of emotional demand still going on for her, or did he die or something so now she's free to date?
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:08 PM on December 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've always interpreted it the same way as The Wrong Kind of Cheese. Especially because it's not a classic Hollywood rom-com, so there are unhappy endings, too.
posted by gakiko at 7:07 AM on December 25, 2017

I also agree with AwkwardPause's interpretation (he probably slept with Mia but they're both committed to trying to fix the marriage) but would also add that whether he slept with Mia is pretty immaterial; Emma Thompson's line about "Was it just a necklace? Was it a necklace and sex?" etc. was her saying that it was a betrayal hands-down, regardless of whether it got physical.
posted by capricorn at 10:17 AM on December 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

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