Director: Paul Feig
Writers: Emma Thompson, Bryony Kimmings
Cast: Emilia Clarke, Emma Thompson, Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding, Boris Isakovic, Lydia Leonard
It’s officially that time of the year when we expect the Christmas movies to start pouring out of studios and into cinemas. It seems this year, however, is rather lacking in that department. So, here to potentially save the season is a Christmas-set, decidedly British rom-com, the trailer of which boasts Love Actually levels of warm-hearted, Christmassy joy and emotional depth (and that’s just Emma Thompson). With nary another Christmas movie out there currently to contend with, Last Christmas is likely to perform well whether it’s a hit or a flop; it’s only real issue (as it is with most holiday movies that want to last) is whether or not it has the capacity to become a staple of ‘what to watch at Christmas’ movie lists. Does it melt hearts or will it melt into obscurity?
After having had a serious illness the previous Christmas, aspiring actress Kate (Clarke) has become something of a selfish wreck, putting her job (dressing as an elf and working in a Christmas shop) and relationships at risk as she tries to figure out life post-life-saving-surgery. One evening, Kate meets Tom (Golding), a bike-riding optimist whom she takes a shine to. They meet up every so often and Kate eventually begins to open up to Tom, which in turn has a positive effect on other areas of her life. After a short time, Tom starts to do a disappearing act, leaving Kate to her own devices, but not all is at it seems when Kate tries to track him down again.
Christmas is traditionally a time of happiness and frivolity that goes hand in hand with deeper reflection and gratitude. We like our Christmas movies to embody those qualities and more, if possible. Last Christmas offers all of the above – at least, it does for the first three-quarters of the movie. Kate’s story may not be the most original, but if you’re going to have a main plot driver that really makes your audience appreciate what they have, it’s a good idea to do it at a time of year when these thoughts are at an annual high. If this story was set at any other time of year, it may not have been quite so easy to toy with audience’s emotions – we’re a little bit more tolerant and receptive right now. Perhaps that’s why it’s easy to let what might otherwise have been a less than interesting story have the benefit of the doubt. That, and the use of the late George Michael’s music, much of which this movie is based around (in case the movie’s title doesn’t make that obvious). With Kate’s personal plight, as well as the plights of those around her (who are dealing with their own life events as well as putting up with Kate’s thoughtlessness), and her relationship with Tom, the plot does build at a good pace and generates interest the more we get to know the characters, but unfortunately it doesn’t continue like this all the way to the end.
When a film builds to its crux, its make-or-break point, there are three ways it can go: up, down, or it plateaus. ‘Up’ would obviously be the most pleasing, showing that good writing still exists. To ‘plateau’ would likely be annoying and signify lazy writing, but it’s not a terrible thing to happen. Going ‘down’ post-crux is painful. Unfortunately, Last Christmas drops down in its third quarter, after it reaches its pinnacle. There are numerous ways the story could have gone in that home run stretch, and the storyline that writers Thompson and Kimmings went with probably sounded like a good idea on paper, but in reality, it was disappointing, not just for the story but for the characters too. Kate deserved better; those in reality who have/had similar problems to Kate’s deserve better; audiences deserve better. It feels somewhat like the first three-quarters have got Thompson’s fingerprints all over it (aka it’s all very ‘British’ in tone), and then the final section has something totally different that doesn’t quite fit (director Feig’s input, perhaps?). It manages to pull up again every so slightly with the final couple of scenes, but not enough to recoup what it’s now lost (part of that loss being the audiences’ investment in the story and characters).
Where the film does succeed, however, and prevents it from becoming a total loss, is in its characters and the performances. Clarke is obviously most well-known for her role in Game of Thrones, and it’s a role she excelled in, but her movie performances haven’t really reflected what she’s capable of (Me Before You was a particular struggle). In Last Christmas she finally finds a movie role that she nails, and this is perhaps because the character of Kate embodies many similarities to Clarke (most notably the sense of humour, but also a similarity in a life-changing health issue). Clarke makes Kate funny, endearing, annoying yet pitiful when needed and, above all, strong. Kate is a character with depth, and Clarke is an actress with depth – it’s a perfect match, as is her chemistry when in scenes with Golding, Thompson and/or Yeoh. Golding too has struggled with his transition from television host to Hollywood actor; thus far, his performances haven’t been much to write home about, but, to his credit, his improvements are clear to see through each film he gets under his belt. His performance as Tom gets him closer to the actor he could be, but he needs to take a risk and step away from the well-meaning, usually-a-nice-guy roles before he get stuck in a perpetual loop of typecasting. Golding has potential to go far, but he needs to take a leap of faith and try something different (in other words, do not become the next Hugh Grant). Thompson is, as always, wonderful as Kate’s Yugoslavian mother, injecting equal amounts of humour and pathos as her character’s background would demand, and Yeoh steps into a role that utilises her humour as well as her signature stiffness to create Kate’s reluctantly affectionate boss (who goes by the name of Santa, which is quite adorable really). The cast as a whole comes together to create a strong troupe, each bringing something to the screen that is entertaining and enjoyable, which ultimately saves the story from crumbling.
If you’re looking for the next Love Actually, you may find something in Last Christmas that will satisfy your craving temporarily, but not for the long run. There are aspects that are enjoyable and characters you will want to root for, but ultimately it won’t sustain you. You may as well stick on one of those Netflix-produced cheesefests that usually stars Vanessa Hudgens or someone else from the Disney Channel, because you’ll probably get the same level of enjoyment. The use of George Michael’s music is also not as big a deal as the trailer makes out – other than the inclusion of the obvious song, you will tend to forget about the music. It’s not really as integral as it’s advertised as being. Last Christmas is worth seeing for the performances, particularly the female ones, as they are certainly the most memorable, and you may come away with a heart that’s slightly warmer than usual, but you may also find yourself a bit disappointed. Maybe have a small bottle or a glass of wine when watching, as it might help to have rosé-tinted glasses to get through the end.