It’s that time of year again. That magical time of year when watching Love Actually multiple times a week isn’t just acceptable, it’s encouraged. Despite its flaws (mild transphobic/homophobic jokes, fat shaming, the whole Jamie and Aurelia plot line, trying to portray the late, great Alan Rickman as unlikeable) this holiday classic has held up surprisingly well over the years. The only part of this masterpiece that has remained impossible to watch is LAURA LINNEY AND KARL. Laura Linney, playing Sarah, is desperately in love with Karl, the “enigmatic chief designer” at whatever nondescript yet hip office she works in. After being pressured to “do something about it” in a series of increasingly inappropriate professional mentoring conversations, she takes Karl home after the office Christmas party. Their much-anticipated tryst (and the most physical, non-simulated action we see any characters have) is cruelly interrupted by Sarah’s ubiquitous cell phone, which shrilly blasts that one ring tone that all the prank shows used in the early 2000’s. It’s her brother, who has severe mental illness, lives in a (hospital? Nursing home? British equivalent?), and has been the source of all the mysterious phone calls she has received throughout the movie and been repeatedly chastised for always taking.
She takes the call, explains her caregiver role to Karl, and then ultimately leaves to be with her brother during his emotional crisis. AND EVERYONE’S HEART BROKE IMMEDIATELY AND FOREVER. I’m sorry for making you relive such a painful memory. But don’t worry, I’m going to fix it. You see, this isn’t actually a tragic story of missed opportunity and the soul crushing nature of caregiving. It’s the story I’m convinced was unfolding while we weren’t looking (because we were all collectively sobbing and shouting “just look at his abs, Laura! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD JUST TOUCH HIS PENIS!”). Because here’s the thing: Karl is actually the worst. Sarah’s true love is someone who sees her dedication to her brother as the beautiful and admirable thing it is.
First, I’m going to go ahead and push back on the implied narrative of Sarah as the put upon caregiver who begrudges her responsibility to her family. During my most recent viewing, I noticed for the first time that Sarah keeps a picture of her brother on her desk at work. This is deeply touching for me, because I don’t know anyone who decorates their desks with things they feel obligated to or trapped by. Homer Simpson didn’t paper his office wall with pictures of Maggie to remind himself of his crushing and onerous obligation to feed his family, he did it to remind himself that he’s working hard so he can help someone he loves. Likewise, Sarah keeps a picture of her brother at work to remind herself why she’s working incredibly late hours, taking all those phone calls, and keeping the cheerful tone in her voice during every interaction. She genuinely loves her brother, and when she tells Karl she’s “happy to do it”, she really means it. When she starts crying after swapping melancholy “Merry Christmas”-s with Karl on Christmas Eve, SHE calls HER BROTHER for comfort. SHE seeks solace from HIM. Her smile when they hug, after she gives him a scarf she clearly knitted with her own two hands? That’s the realest smile we ever see on her face. That’s not obligation. That’s LOVE.
Okay, that aside, I’ll move on to Karl’s many failings as a human being and as a potential partner for Sarah:
- Sarah and Karl have worked together for over two and a half years. They both routinely work late and are often the last two people in the office. She keeps a picture of her brother on her desk and takes tons of personal phone calls. We see that she responds quite openly to her brother (“I’m not sure it’s possible to get the Pope on the phone tonight, darling”), so people in the office have definitely figured out at least the gist of what her whole deal is. So WHY HAS KARL FAILED TO NOTICE?? Their boss tells Sarah in their first conversation that Karl “knows” about her pantsfeelings for him, and he clearly reciprocates these feelings, so why has he not put in the bare minimum effort to get to know her? Not cool, Karl.
- When she takes the phone call mid make out and then explains all this deeply personal stuff to him, he says “That’s fine, life is full of interruptions and complications”, then immediately tries to continue fucking her. I’m sorry, if I was about to bone someone and they took a call from a distraught family member and explained to me that this person counts on them and also they’re an orphan and in a relatively isolated situation in a strange country, my immediate reaction would be more along the lines of “wow, that sounds really rough, do you need to talk anything out” and less “well, can’t let a good erection go to waste, can we?” In this moment, Karl hears her say “hold up, the person I love most in the world is in pain” and he just continues trying to get his dick wet without skipping a beat. Not cool, Karl.
- They start making out again and the phone rings. She hesitates, clearly wanting to answer, and Karl asks her “will it make him better?” When she says no, he then tells her to ignore the call. OH, SO IT’S ONLY OKAY TO GIVE THE PEOPLE WE LOVE OUR SUPPORT IF IT WILL FIX THEM?? That’s a pretty fucked up view of relationships and also mental health issues, Karl. Not cool.
- She does answer the phone, and says “no, I’m no busy”. First of all, that’s once again not obligation. It’s clearly the result of the brother feeling guilty about taking up so much time, and habitually worrying that he’s disturbing her while she’s “busy”. Her response isn’t resentment or resignation, it’s the “how many times do I have to tell you, I’ll never be too busy to take your call” that I’ve heard from every parent, partner, and caregiver I know. Second of all, Karl shoots her this WOUNDED look, which is completely unwarranted. Yeah Karl, she kissed you for a minute and it was exciting. You’re hot and all, but this is important shit. She’s not “busy” because you inexpertly took her dress off. You don’t get to look offended that someone’s mental health crisis is interfering with your impromptu day trip to Fucktown. Not cool, Karl.
- It’s pretty clear that Karl never had a follow up conversation with Sarah after all this. Again, it’s just a shocking lack of regard for the person you supposedly have feelings for. So your romantic whirlwind got interrupted by real life. It happens. (I feel like someone in this movie said life is full of interruptions and complications??) So check in. “Hey, I had fun the other night and I’m sorry the night ended awkwardly. I think it’s really cool that you’re so supportive of your brother. That must be hard with no other family around. Wanna grab tea and chat about it? Do you need anything?” You can’t just ignore her and then mope on by with with a passive aggressive “Merry Christmas”. NOT. COOL. KARL.
Okay, so now that you’re all on board with Karl being a literal garbage human, let’s move on to the hidden romance we all missed. There is one person who is visibly impressed with Sarah’s devotion to her family, her calm and loving approach to supporting her brother, and her cheerful smile even when things feel heart wrenchingly impossible. Next time you watch this movie, pay close attention to the guy who works at the hospital where her brother lives. Watch how he starts off looking at her brother as a possible threat, and leaves looking at her like she’s a miracle worker. As someone who has worked in environments like that, I can tell you it is fucking rare to see family answer calls at all hours, show up in the middle of the night, and spend Christmas Eve entirely with their loved one in that setting. It is not something that goes unnoticed. That man works every day with people whose families have thrown them away. Don’t expect me to believe for one minute that he’s not blown away to see someone happily carry out this duty. He’s working there on Christmas Eve, he sees the tenderness in that hug and the hand knit scarf she gives her brother. He sees her being willing to sacrifice whatever she needs to in order to continue being her brother’s source of comfort. There is no way that doesn’t lead to romance. If Colin Frissell can find love in Wisconsin, Sarah can find love that fits into her life along with the caregiving role she has chosen for herself. As the movie is constantly reminding us, love actually is all around.
Everyone else in the movie gets, if not a happy ending, at least a resolution in the “one month later” epilogue. Laura Linney’s character is the only one who doesn’t even show up in the airport in that scene. This used to make me incredibly salty, but now I’m okay with it. Where would she need to be flying to? Everyone she loves is right there.