Every year, during the holiday season, we are inundated with movies and TV specials that extol the virtues of humanity and teach us a valuable lesson about being nice to each other, all while having a song in our heart and a twinkle in our eye. It’s not easy as you get older, and in these hyper-cynical times, to maintain that wide-eyed optimism about life in general; so it’s refreshing to cleanse the spiritual palate with a genre that is known for its lighthearted atmosphere and emotional comfort.
Most holiday films can seem devoid of depth or lacking any real meaningful self-reflection; but when you strip away the shiny lights and silly, family misadventures, there is sometimes a moment or two of genuine human connection. A wisp of revelation and reconciliation brought on by the fact that, no matter what tragedies have befallen you in the past, there is someone out there that still cares about you. Or at the very least we should learn to care about ourselves and if down the line someone else does too all the better.
What does all this have to do with George Michael? Well he wrote a song. A song involving Christmas, or rather a song that is recalling a story during Christmas. It’s a tale of vulnerability and having your feelings crushed by someone you cherished. So you continue your pursuit of love, but now you’ve built a wall of insecurity to protect what little optimism you may have left. Worse still is that you miss the romance and the attention. You hope to one day reunite, blinding yourself to all the mistakes that destroyed that relationship in the first place. An endless circle of regret and longing.
It was originally performed by Wham! and has stood the test of time as it makes the rotation every year on whatever random playlist you happen to have in the background of your family get-together. Or on your way to work as you quickly change the station to see what else is on. Emma Thompson was tasked with finding a story out of that song that would make a compelling Christmas movie. She struggled, collaborated, and eventually came up with Paul Feig’s next project. A film centered on a woman in personal crisis who finds guidance in a man with a kind heart and a generous soul.
In Last Christmas, directed by Paul Feig, Kate (Emilia Clarke) is a woman with poor judgement and few career prospects. She’s burned more bridges than she can remember and now sleeps at the home of whichever friend she hasn’t pissed off yet. Whenever things get difficult, she manages to elude the aftermath and move on to her next bad decision. She is not close with her family but makes feeble attempts to stay connected. Her sister Marta (Lydia Leonard), mother Petra (Emma Thompson), and father Ivan (Boris Isakovic) are a typical immigrant family who moved to England for a better life.
Kate’s current job is as an elf at an all-year Christmas shop, run by a nagging, insulting owner named Santa (Michelle Yeoh). Santa’s constant pestering of Kate is well-founded because Kate is not one who can handle responsibility, or empathy, or people in general. When things in Kate’s life appear to be at their worst, she meets Tom (Henry Golding). Tom is a clean-cut man dressed in a trench coat who rides around the city on a bike and, for whatever reason, finds Kate interesting.
The two strike up a conversation and eventually become close. Kate is initially apprehensive of Tom’s overall genial attitude and charitable endeavors, he volunteers at a homeless shelter, but you can only resist his charm for so long. Kate may be enjoying this stable relationship, but unresolved issues may prevent her from finding real happiness.
If you’ve seen the trailer for Last Christmas, you may be able to decipher the entire movie and I will not disagree. What you see is what you get. It is nothing more than a heartwarming tale of laughs, tears, and understanding. Be that as it may, I don’t usually go into a holiday film looking to reorganize my top ten of the year. If it’s entertaining and executed well, I will take it at face value and forgive the cheesy one-liners and schmaltzy embraces. Leaving those out would betray the film’s intent anyway.
There is not much that’s original about the main story, but certain elements make it feel unique. Kate’s family being from Yugoslavia is one of them. I think it fleshed out what could have been a two-dimensional backstory for Kate. Instead it becomes something that draws us closer to her; and also tempers our frustrations at her personal failings.
The dialogue is also very enjoyable. Particularly the delivery. Maybe it’s the way British people converse, but I find their quick-witted banter to be both hilarious and fun. Even when it’s something as inconsequential as cleaning a room, the number of lines it takes to settle the matter is strangely delightful. Not only does it add levity throughout the film, it helps to cut the tension when things get too serious or melancholy. As some stories tend to do. Part of the human condition is internal conflict and cathartic arguments with our loved ones. I commend a film that can still emphasize the comedic side without shying away from the moments that remind us these are real human beings with complicated lives.
There really wasn’t a single performance from the main cast I didn’t find enjoyable. Outside of Game of Thrones, I don’t think I’ve seen anything from Emilia Clarke that’s impressed me. Knowing she is a terrific actress, I’m glad that she did a great job in this movie. Her chemistry with the entire cast is wonderful. Particularly Henry Golding, who is both brilliant and beyond charming. He gives such an understated and captivating performance that it makes his scenes with Kate feel more sincere and genuine. You eagerly anticipate his response to every line or action from Kate.
Emma Thompson’s character in this movie is vastly different from her role in Late Night. Here she is a concerned mother who ignores how much her daughters have grown and how nontraditional their lives have become. I can’t vouch for Thompson’s accent, but when she was on screen it was funny, endearing, and lovely. A sizable amount of the funny, however, comes from Michelle Yeoh as Santa. I’ll let you find out how she got that name. Yeoh is definitely intended as the comedic relief, but she gets her own time to shine as well.
Last Christmas is a nice holiday film. It checks off practically all the boxes that a holiday film is known for. Those boxes include a wintry or festive backdrop, a sudden romance, a sudden or ongoing conflict with family and/or friends, a tragic error in judgement that must be rectified before said holiday has ended, an epiphany or series of epiphanies that gives characters the second chance to make things right or venture on a journey of happiness before it’s too late, a tearful embrace by a couple or group, and, finally, a celebration comprised of either unwrapping gifts, eating, dancing, singing, or all of the above. I won’t say which of these the movie employs, but they can be fun to point out as you’re watching.
I’d recommend checking this out at a matinee and bringing someone you love. Don’t pay full price. Henry Golding for me is the highlight of the movie. As the story unfolded, I wished he had more time on screen than what he was given. Still Emilia holds her own and delivers both heart and humor where it counts. If you are a George Michael or Wham! fan, you will either be annoyed by this movie or just be happy that any movie used so many of his songs. They are sprinkled in at various times and I thought they added something special to those scenes. If you aren’t enamored by Hallmark movies or whatever Netflix or Amazon Prime has to offer, consider venturing into the theaters and checking out this slightly average, emotionally uplifting tale of self-improvement.
About Last Christmas
Synopsis: Kate is a young woman subscribed to bad decisions. Her last date with disaster? That of having accepted to work as Santa’s elf for a department store. However, she meets Tom there. Her life takes a new turn. For Kate, it seems too good to be true.
Director: Paul Feig
Writer: Emma Thompson, Bryony Kimmings
Stars: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson
Runtime: 1 Hour, 42 Minutes