The moment the clock hits midnight on the last day of October, the speed with which Halloween is tossed in the bin and Christmas pops up is enough to disorient. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the first major studio Christmas release lands the first weekend of November with Universal’s romantic dramedy Last Christmas. As someone who didn’t grow up in the glow of Christmas films, the allure of a story celebrating one of the world’s largest holidays doesn’t strike me in any way or form. What is striking about Last Christmas, however, is that it exudes the spirit of the holiday without celebrating it, opting for a more universal message of hope, recovery, and redemption. While Last Christmas hits all the marks of a feel-good holiday flick, it also incorporates several challenging notions which celebrants of the holiday tend to forget amid the parties and gift-giving. For that, Last Christmas is far from forgettable and is bound to become a staple around the holidays.
Despite a desire to pull her life together, continuous mess Kate (Emilia Clarke) places herself in one bad situation after another. It’s not that she doesn’t care about hurting people or that she enjoys the drama, it’s just that Kate doesn’t think beyond the immediate. Considering it’s only been a year since she was rushed to the hospital for an emergency heart transplant, thinking long term just isn’t on her radar. This has created an enormous rift between her and her sister Marta (Lydia Leonard), father Ivan (Boris Isakovic), mother Petra (Emma Thompson), and her boss Santa (Michelle Yeoh). After a chance meeting with Tom (Henry Golding), things begin to change, but is it because of Tom, the mysterious, yet beguiling man, or something within herself? After what happened last Christmas, anything is truly possible.
For anyone familiar with the George Michael song “Last Christmas” and/or has seen a trailer for the film, there’s been a running theory as to the plot of Last Christmas. This review will neither confirm, deny, nor acknowledge any of those theories. If you’re confused as to the purpose of this statement, don’t be. None of it matters in the execution of the film. Whether there is a twist or not truly does not impact the overall themes and message of Last Christmas. Developed by Thompson with first-time writer Greg Wise (Sense and Sensibility), with a story scripted by Thompson and another first-time writer Bryony Kimmings (documentary The Little c) and helmed by Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, Last Christmas is as much a sweet yet never saccharine holiday tale as it is an exploration of personal responsibility and self-identity. If that surprises you, then you’re not going to be alone, but you should buckle in. Clarke’s Kate is the stereotypical maladroit at the center of just about every rom-com. The difference here is much of her issues stem not just from health-related trauma, but from an identity crisis. This is largely subtext in the film, but every time a relative calls her Katarina, her birth name, she balks and her struggle for identity comes to the forefront. One can’t help but wonder if this is slightly inspired by George Michael, the artist whose music motivates Kate in her day-to-day. Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, he later changed his name to his global persona. Without getting into the psychology as to why, Kate is also an aspiring singer and changing her name would give her global appeal, especially at a time (the film is set in 2017) when Brexit is just beginning to kick off in the U.K. This correlation obviously doesn’t equate to causation, but it is suspicious and creates an argument that could be made for the U.K.’s own struggle for self-identification in the background of Last Christmas being, a way to manifest, on a larger scale, Kate’s own conflict. It’s a struggle which Last Christmas settles by reminding audiences of the story of Christmas: a tale of refugees in need of help and that the simple act of helping others is what leads to happiness. Where most holiday films lean on the tropes and traditions of Christmas to evoke the feeling of the holiday, Last Christmas surprises by drilling into the core of it.
While this seems like a digression, especially considering the obvious lack of serious political discussion in the film, there is, however, an on-going discussion of what Kate’s name is, how her family has changed in the wake of leaving war-torn Yugoslavia at some point in the past, and how this has created an old country vs. modernity struggle between the two generations. It’s a lot to unpack, but Thompson and Kimmings manage to insert socio-political commentary flawlessly while keeping things flowing in such a way that the jokes land without seeming forced and the pathos is honest without giving way to dramatics. It’s not perfect, mind you, as elements which should be heavier or should have more time spent more on them aren’t given stronger focus in favor of narrative momentum. It works out in the long run, but that doesn’t keep it from being noticeable. Especially in one contentious family moment that is not only pivotal for Kate as a set-back in her growth, but also is, honestly, rather unforgivable, despite the lack of malicious intent. It utilizes all the goodwill Kate’s developed up to the moment to not lose more sensitive members of the audience from this point forward, which, frankly, has as much to do with the narrative structure developed by Thompon and Kimmings as it does Clarke’s endearing performance.
When it comes down to any rom-com, especially one dealing with the holidays, everything comes down to the performances. Even the most schlocky story can be elevated by strong performances and Last Christmas is chockfull of them, so much so that this reviewer found himself grinning like an idiot through the majority of the production. Clarke’s Kate is your typical rom-com protagonist: a mess, but not too messy; irresponsible, but not apathetic; crud, but not without charm. It certainly helps that the story isn’t designed as standard fare, opting for a subtle approach which makes Kate her own hero versus placing her happiness in the hands of another. That kind of self-agency is refreshing to find in any story, but it’s especially notable in a holiday rom-com. For her part, Clarke natural cheeriness and wit makes even the most sarcastic line deliveries feel wrapped in vulnerability. As Tom, the mischievous and secretive man whom Kate fancies, Golding is absolutely delightful. Part of this is because the character listens more often than speaks which Golding conveys with exceptional delicacy. It would be easy for Golding to play the character as too much of a White Knight or too mysterious (read: dangerous), so the line of present, idealistic, yet not domineering is a difficult line to toe. The chemistry between Clarke and Golding is spot-on, making every scene they’re in better than any scene without them. This is saying something because both Thompson and Yeoh steal the limelight from Clarke every time they enter the story. In one particularly sweet scene between Yeoh and Clarke, Yeoh’s Santa regales Kate with the etymology of every name she’s had based on the job she’s held. In one way, it goes back to the larger notion of self-identity and agency which runs underneath the film, but it also is a strong showcase for how a great actor (Yeoh) can do so much with even simple dialogue.
In the end, Last Christmas is everything you expect and everything you don’t. Charming performances, a thoughtful story, and a fantastic George Michael soundtrack are bound to have audiences bopping in their seats, including previously unreleased song “This Is How (We Want You To Get High).” Most importantly, Last Christmas is the rare holiday film which is more interested in the message of the holiday, than the holiday itself. So easily do we focus on the trimmings, the tree, and the packages tied up with ribbons, that we forget that it’s also about heart and hearth. In these times of seemingly perpetual conflict, where we’re told to worry about “them” because they aren’t “us,” it’s lovely to see a film attempt to bridge that gap by exploring, in as populist a way as possible, that “we are them,” and it’s that which the holidays are all about.
In theaters November 8th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.