Released 2019. Director: Paul Feig
LAST CHRISTMAS CAME OUT IN 2019 AT A TIME when frankly there were many other movies more interesting and I chose to let it slip. Seeing it now as we move into the second half of 2021, I believe the timing puts it in a different light. Two years ago I’d have regarded it as a fluffy romantic comedy which is, though mildly enjoyable, more decorations and tinsel rather than a real gift under the tree. Ask me now and I’d recommend you give it a go.
In the last 18 months the world has changed so much, even irrevocably for many people. There's hardly anyone whose life hasn’t been affected to some degree, minor inconvenience for some, devastating loss for others. Chances are you know someone personally, or indirectly, who has fallen ill, gone into hospital. Some recovered, some did not. Others have lost their jobs and livelihoods. These things change how we see our lives, and that’s what I think gives Last Christmas that added layer of meaning out of a light-hearted, jolly-jingly, shiny-ribbony feel-good season’s greetings.
Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings took inspiration from the hit song Last Christmas and started on the script way before George Michael’s unexpected death in 2016. The song was released in 1984 and has been a staple every December on the airwaves since. If you happen to be one of the half dozen people left who has never heard this mega hit by Wham, oh well, I’m sorry to hear about your coma.
After a brief prologue to establish the cultural heritage of our protagonist Katarina (in a flashback to former Yugoslavia of 1999, our heroine singing Heal the Pain, also by George Michael), we start the story proper in present-day London, where else but inside a Christmas shop.
This is where Katarina, who calls herself Kate now, dresses as an elf selling Christmas decorations all year round. She aspires to be a singer but she keeps failing at auditions. She’s also dragging a luggage couch-surfing and ruining friendships before finally returning home to patch things up with her mother.
As if by divine intervention, a mysterious man appears outside her shop on a bicycle catches her attention. Kate and Tom have instant chemistry. They start hanging out after work when Tom would take Kate through light-festooned laneways, sneak into skating rink after hours and chill out in a secret urban garden enclosure. Tom is understanding, considerate and the perfect gentleman with an abundance of sage advice. "Look up," he always says. Of course, he also volunteers at the shelter for the homeless like a total saint in the flesh. No wonder Kate thinks he’s too good to be true. Maybe she’s right.
Emilia Clarke exudes such an infectious level of effervescence she ticks every box required of a rom-com sweetheart twice over. Kate is happy-go-lucky even at her lowest, which is what, I suppose, makes her the ideal employee at a place like a year-round Christmas shop. Unlike some actresses who lose sight of the line between being endearing and cringing over-emoting (a very real hazard in this genre even for big stars, just ask Julia Roberts), Emilia manages to be funny and sympathetic without being cloying or annoying.
Fresh from his successful debut in Crazy Rich Asians a year before, Henry Golding makes for a charming romantic lead in a quiet comedy (only by comparison with the boisterous and party mood of his debut movie). This means he gets more space and time to make a stronger impression and doesn’t need to compete for attention amidst raucous crowds in flashy production design.
In addition to writing the script, Emma Thompson also plays Kate’s mother who constantly worries about her daughter's medical condition. We’ve seen Thompson in numerous comedies but it is Michelle Yeoh, calling herself Santa, who delivers a surprise performance that shows a hidden talent for light comedy.
The script adheres to a familiar rom-com template – the couple meet cute, hit an obstacle or a turn of events, then a resolution. This time though, the resolution is accompanied with a twist. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, I don’t want to spoil it here. If you really want a hint, take the first line of the Last Christmas lyrics literally.
At times schmaltzy as required (but kept to a minimum, thank goodness), the script is cleverly set for the most parts at night to make the most of the festive mood with fairy lights and dusting of snow on London streets to enhance the sense of romantic fuzziness which is vital to the twist revelation. There’s even an attempt to comment lightly on xenophobia and Brexit, topical at the time of the movie’s release.
Last Christmas is comfortably pleasant. It’s not deep or insightful but to dismiss it as sentimental and weightless is to overlook the uncanny relevance it possesses. Seeing it for the first time after 18 months of having our arses kicked and our world disrupted many times in many ways, Last Christmas shows how precious it is when life gives you a second chance. Honestly, at a time like this we could all do with such a gift.
Click image above to view trailer. New window will open.