Eugene Allen‘s wife, Helene, died the day before the US elections which saw Barack Obama claim his place at the first Arican American President. Eugene and his wife had been married for 65 years and had long been planning the day when they would vote together, for Obama. Eugene himself had enjoyed a long association with the White House, having worked there as a butler for 34 years and served eight presidents. His story was reported in an article entitled “A Butler Well Served by This Election” in The Washington Post in 2008. The piece inspired Danny Strong’s screenplay for ‘The Butler’, in which Eugene is represented by the fictional Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker).
The film features a number of highly rated actors, drawn from both sides of the pond, from Oprah Winfrey to Robin Williams, Jane Fonda to Alan Rickman (they were my favourite Presidential couple, as Ronald and Nancy Reagan), Vanessa Redgrave to Lenny Kravitz. This varied cast is indicative of the wide scope of the film.
There is no doubt that this was a great idea for a movie, but for me the realisation somehow missed the mark. As it moves through the decades, the film attempts to chronicle the main events in the American human rights movement – mainly through the active involvement of the butler’s own son. This story is interleaved with those of the butler’s own family life and also the histories of the successive presidents. It is too tall an order, too much to cram in to one film in any meaningful way. As a result, I found the film just skimmed across the surface, never really getting to grips with the issues. It was like watching someone panning across a huge vista with a pair of binoculars, but never focussing in. No-one gives a bad performance, but no-one is especially memorable.
In my humble opinion, the film-makers could have taken some hints from Forrest Gump, whose run through modern history is far more engaging than that of The Butler.
Choosing Christmas presents? I love it. Shopping? Love that even more. Parting with the cash is sometimes painful, but I can cope. Wrapping up all the gifts? I hate it. Absolutely bloody hate it. It’s an annual battle, me against the Clinton roll wrap. So, whilst I barricaded myself in the bedroom and stuck a ‘Keep Out – Elf at Work’ sign on the door, ‘Love Actually’ was a great choice to distract me from the disobedient sticky tape.
The film interweaves twelve love stories, which take place in the 5 weeks leading up to Christmas. Written and directed by comic genius Richard Curtis, the film is gentle and thought-provoking, exploring love in its many guises. Watching the film for the first time is probably the best, as the links between the characters are gradually revealed; David the Prime Minister is Karen the Mum’s brother, and Natalie, who is David’s secretary, turns out to live next door to Mia, who is Karen’s husband’s (Harry) secretary and in love with him and so on. It sounds complicated and in some ways it is, but so is modern life; we are all inter-connected by links of romantic love, parental love, friendship, familial love. The film is saved from being corny by its robust script and strong cast, as almost anyone who is everyone in British acting puts in an appearance: Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Martin Freeman, Colin Firth, Bill Nighy …..and more. Even Rowan Atkinson pops up as an over-attentive shop assistant. Rodrigo Santoro, one of Brazil’s most talented and famous actors also stars, as Karl, with whom Sarah is in love. Santoro does not have a big role, but deserves a mention simply because he is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, especially when he takes his shirt off!
‘Love Actually’ has probably become part of the UK Christmas viewing landscape, together with ‘Its a Wonderful Life‘, ‘The Snowman‘ and the ‘The Sound of Music‘. The film is showing pretty much back to back on Sky over the Christmas holiday, or the DVD is only £3 on Amazon so would fit into your stocking. I suppose the fact that I could watch the film whilst multi-tasking probably says something about its watchability; it’s mental floss. But that doesn’t make me like it any less!