Towards a Grand, Unified Theory of the Richard Curtis Cinematic Universe

Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in Notting Hill (1999)
Universal Pictures

Richard Curtis, the screenwriter of—among many others—iconic romcoms Love Actually and Four Weddings and A Funeral, does not think of his films as romantic comedies. As a massive fan, I agree. They’re science fiction. I don’t mean this as an edgy, true-love-isn’t-real hot take. Rather than presupposing his movies take place in our world, or are even trying to simulate it, I’m arguing that they take place in their own charming but hermetically sealed dimension, which has its own rules: the Richard Curtis Cinematic Universe (or RCCU, for short).

My pet theory of the RCCU coalesced around a handful of his movies, though Curtis has somewhere in the neighborhood of 59 IMDB writing credits, including the British TV show Blackadder and adaptations of two of his friend Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones novels. I give an estimate of the number of credits because at any given moment, he’s on the verge of becoming involved with “doctoring” other films, as happened in the time between researching this essay and writing it: he was recently tapped for a rewrite of The Little Mermaid. He’s one of those figures in film who may not literally be a household name, but whose writing certainly helped the careers of many British actors who are, from Hughs Laurie to Grant.

The idea of the RCCU owes something to the MCU and the DCEU, the acronyms we use to refer to the film franchises spawned by comic book publishers Marvel and DC. These are convenient ways for fans to talk about those movies and their attendant lore in shorthand, and (like all jargon), used in part to demonstrate one is in the know about the granular details of sci-fi world-building. In the last decade, the acronyms also became part of branding and entertainment news surrounding the release of those films, and filtered down to people who didn’t read the original comics or spend hours interpreting their movie adaptations. The RCCU can actually withstand the same level of feverish fan scrutiny: It has an internal logic, its own set of rules, and all the films could take place in the same expanded universe.

How to explain the outsized influence of Curtis on the genre of English-language romance-inflected comedies without a shorthand? In order to talk about a concept, we have to name it. So many Hollywood romcoms are pale imitations of Curtis’ particular brand of natural, witty banter and brief but exacting character studies, it can be hard to take stock. Consider the slew of unwatchable American Love Actually knock-offs that tried unsuccessfully, in the years after its 2003 release, to twist storylines of barely-acquainted urbanites together into coherent, emotionally interesting narratives. You may recognize them from their pallid arrangement around a nominally sentimental holiday or self-help book: New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, He’s Just Not That Into You. All lacked his wit and charm. They also lacked the internal logic that makes his movies like tiny, perfect snowglobes; they lack Curtis’ treatment of the romcom itself as a sci-fi premise. They let the simulacra of realism get in the way of a good story.

Curtis, I suspect, knows that his films thrive in the suspension of disbelief. He described his idea for Notting Hill, in which a movie starlet played by Julia Roberts falls for a bookstore owner played by Hugh Grant, as coming to him when he joked with friends about bringing Madonna to a dinner party. That he made a slew of beloved films with outrageous premises, and managed to make them grounded enough in our reality to avoid the label of science fiction before now, is a real magic trick.

For the purposes of the RCCU, the central Curtis canon starts with Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994, continues with Notting Hill in 1999, reaches an apex with 2003’s Love Actually, returns in 2013’s About Time, and most recently came back to cinemas last summer with the ambitious Yesterday. Curtis has only been allowed, or perhaps has only desired, to direct two of those scripts: Love Actually and About Time, a decade apart. Mike Newell and Roger Michell directed Four Weddings and Notting Hill, respectively, and Yesterday was helmed by Danny Boyle.

Science fiction has to have its own internal logic and stated rules in order for the audience to fully buy into the world being created from scratch. This is one of the things Curtis excels in: his scripts don’t conform to gritty realism, or hew too closely to autobiography. In every RCCU, for instance, a quirky Englishman with good hair wants love and a lot of heterosexual sex, in that order. He has a career, but it’s not important: it’s set dressing for the romantic pining that’s to come. He very often has a quirky and tragic little sister. 

In both Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, this is the Hugh Grant role; he’s paired with Andie MacDowell in the former and Julia Roberts in the latter. These were so iconic for Grant that he was typecast in similar (but lesser) films for two decades. In Love Actually, by virtue of its eight intertwined storylines, the quirky Englishman role is distributed across several characters, including an earnest body double played by Martin Freeman and a flailing novelist played by Colin Firth, but most easily recognized in Liam Neeson, a grieving widower who ends up with Claudia Schiffer, as a woman who looks exactly like Claudia Schiffer. This is the stuff of fantasy, and refreshingly, it doesn’t pretend to be otherwise.

Another tenet of the RCCU is that, in spite of being handsome and charming, the Englishman is somehow bad with women. Curtis is brilliant at sketching the outlines of why these otherwise perfect male archetypes (booksellers, defense attorneys, teachers, musicians, prime ministers, who are always handsome and funny and all-around sensitive, smart men who just want to love and be loved!) haven’t found love before the start of the story. Often they are widowed or divorced, or we see them awkwardly chatting up a hot blonde. We recognize when the right woman enters his life by her effortless ability to give good banter. Curtis knows we don’t want the messy details of how Liam Neeson’s dead spouse succumbed in Love Actually, or why Hugh Grant’s first wife left him in Notting Hill; we want the fantasy of a perfect man who is perfectly available at the perfect moment a perfect-looking woman walks into his life. Here again is the suspension of disbelief we require from our sci-fi.

Importantly, a third core principle of the RCCU is that American girls are hotter, and more willing to have sex, than their English counterparts. Upon finding out the number of partners she has had, the Englishman chokes down his disturbance and celebrates her achievements, as in the scene in Four Weddings where Carrie (MacDowell) lists off her 33 sex partners and Charlie (Grant) adds colorful commentary, urging her on. The couple seems modern for even discussing other partners in the midst of their romantic storyline, and joke about sex workers are treated lightly by the characters involved. They live in a world where they do not personally know any sex workers, and absolutely no one appearing in the background is outside the range of what can politely be called middle class. In fact, it was really only in Yesterday that class and money were openly discussed by the characters, but that’s because the sci-fi premise—that Himesh Patel wakes up in a world where no one knows The Beatles and so he can claim their songs as his own and become a wunderkind—relies on him having dreams of being more successful than a shop employee with a failed music career on the side.

In About Time, Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams take on the unhip Englishman/sexually liberated American girl, but they still fall in love easily and act out the domestic bliss that can only exist in a two-hour runtime. In Yesterday, Curtis and Boyle update the formula by having the Englishman played by Himesh Patel, and the romantic interest played by Lily James, keeping her native accent and dispensing altogether with the American angle, but it’s not a far cry from the previous Curtis love interests. These women exist as sketches, too: vague enough to be projected on by those who desire her, and those who identify with her. Precious few male screenwriters bother with making the female lead interesting enough to bear the scrutiny of those who want to be her, rather than to be with her. The RCCU usually manages this feat.

The most unrealistic element of the RCCU is that friends of the Englishman have a stake in, and loud opinions about, his romantic life. It’s my favorite Curtis trope, and the one that’s hardest to imitate. Many have tried, most have failed. If you’re watching a decent romcom with leads who have a passing amount of chemistry and are wondering why something feels missing, it’s likely because that movie lacks the astutely observed stable of supporting characters that are a staple of the RCCU. Curtis’ oeuvre is demographically homogeneous—terminally white and unilaterally classed as “comfortable”—but the characters who populate his films all feel to the audience to be distinct and authentic. In many cases, this is at least in part because he based them off his own friends, though the idea that one’s friends care about one’s love life is the purview again of pure fantasy. We are fed the idea that female and femme creatives always mine their personal lives for their creative output, but it’s just as true of male and masc creators, and Curtis cops to it openly. It isn’t the characters themselves that require a suspension of disbelief; it’s their investment in the lead’s sexual escapades. 

After the friends have weighed in, the RCCU insists that the Englishman gets the girl by virtue of his innate goodness, as embodied by his hair and accent.

There’s a scene in Four Weddings and A Funeral in which Hugh Grant’s character, Charlie, is seated as a wedding guest with a table of women—all of whom he’s dated. What’s worse, he’s apparently gossiped about all of them to the others. This of course lends itself to high comedy, but it also serves to sketch a slightly disturbing outline of the protagonist we know precious little about. Still, Charlie wins over the audience—and imprints on at least two consecutive generations of straight women—with his blushing, stammering, and floppy hair, and truly, it is good enough for me. It is a fantasy that someone so handsome could be so self-effacing. It is science fiction that a man so serially hurtful to women he’s dated would shape up the second a model seduces him. We root for Charlie to end up with Andie MacDowell’s Carrie even when Charlie is literally marrying another woman. Why? How? There’s his innate goodness, as evidenced by precious little more than his plummy vowels. I do not know how Curtis discovered the (possibly colonial) fact that this sound telegraphs decency and kindness to so much of the world, but it can’t be a coincidence that the Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson put on the same English accent for About Time.

Finally, no RCCU film would be complete without explicit fealty to body fascism. It is a consistent theme of his work, right there with the sexually liberated American goddess and the unhappy little sister archetype. Curtis manages to insert a completely heinous comment (or several) about a woman’s body, weight gain, or weight loss into every script. That women’s weight is persistently tied to a negative character trait—the actress Polly Kemp plays a drippy ex of Charlie’s in Four Weddings credited on IMDB as “Miss Piggy,” which she is also called in dialogue; the character of Natalie (played by singer Martine McCutcheon) in Love Actually is called “chubby” and swears like a sailor while working for the prime minister—is a notably fantastical feature of the RCCU. And it is a feature, not a bug: Curtis knows this is an easy laugh, and doesn’t seem to mind that it’s cheap. It is much more common to the realm of science fiction that appearance would so consistently equate to character.

The notion that the RCCU films are actually better categorized as science fiction gains credibility with About Time and Yesterday, which both have literal sci-fi premises. The former is about a father and son who possess the ability to travel through time, and what begins as an exploration of that fantasy becomes, in the end, a profound meditation on the metaphor inherent in the idea. Curtis delves into the science fiction element with the ease of a person who knows the terrain, because he does: he knows precisely how much explanation to provide for the mechanics (not much), and how to weave allegory from the surreal. Coming to the end of seemingly endless time, what else could one do but wish to spend it with a terminally ill parent? We watch Gleeson’s character navigate trading a daughter for a sister through the butterfly effect, and we realize that adulthood necessitates these kinds of trade-offs with one’s attention to loved ones. The art is to conceal the art.

Yesterday centers on a young songwriter who gets in a bike accident and wakes up in a world where The Beatles never existed, and Curtis uses that concept to explore what makes a successful life worth living. Himesh Patel’s Jack Malik obtains the fame and fortune he could never have known with his own music by taking, by way of an alternate universe, the career of The Beatles for himself. It’s only when that success loses him the girl he’s always loved that he realizes none of the money or prestige has made him truly happy, and that he wants nothing more than to settle down, become a music teacher, and marry Lily James. And who wouldn’t?

I love Richard Curtis movies. To read his screenplays is a joy; to watch his movies is one of my most reliable escapes. I want to live in the artificial worlds he creates, with their aesthetic rules and regulations, if only to live in a world where problems are surmountable, and everyone is funny. Few screenwriters have this power, but those that do are crafting science fiction. It’s time to call it what it is.