When a whole nationwide internet game is based around one song (how long did you last in #Whamaggedon this time around?) you know that there is intrinsic value in exploring the lyrics in as many forms of entertainment as possible. “Last Christmas I gave you my heart, but the very next day you gave it away,” sang George Michael in 1984, and Emma Thompson was certainly taking notes.
Written by Thompson, directed by Paul Feig, and starring Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding, Last Christmas is a romantic comedy that delivers a wonderful present under your tree. Self-centred Kate (Clarke) is not living her best life. Unable to stand living at home with her domineering mother (Thompson) and so freeloading off of a dwindling circle of friends, Kate is a train wreck who can’t take care of herself. Her singing auditions are going nowhere and her love life choices are misjudged or temporary. Even working as an elf for Santa (Michelle Yeoh) in an all year round Christmas obsessed store can’t bring her any cheer.
Running through the centre of Last Christmas is a perfectly lovely if perfectly standard romance. When Kate meets Tom (Golding) he manages to bring out the best in her by encouraging self-care, and to ‘look up’ at wonders above otherwise missed. Clarke and Golding’s chemistry is well played by being neither schmaltzy or unnecessarily tempestuous. Tom flits in and out of Kate’s life in a way that gives her plenty of agency free from the romance plot, and his doing so later becomes a tenant of the intrigue of his own character. Kate’s questioning of where Tom disappears to and what he does during his frequent absence is shared by the viewer.
When watching a Richard Curtis movie or something of that ilk you get used to a gaggle of paper-thin supporting puppets who spurt out quickly identifiable tropes and snappy one-liners. Feig and Emma Thompson (Late Night) wisely stick more glitter on the baubles by ensuring that Last Christmas plumps out its supporting cast. Thompson’s portrayal of an overbearing mother is softened with genuine affection and a need to be needed. Michelle Yeoh provides an always reliable support that encompasses sass, sickly love, and sardonic affection. Even a couple of bit part police officers shine out as welcome smile creators.
In order for Last Christmas to work you have to really cling to the central character. Clarke’s performance is one that borders on just the right side of well-meaning but self destructive (in the hands of Hollywood the character would likely have been more teeth gratingly obnoxious). Is there any actor who utilises such expressive eyebrows in current memory? Her exasperation and descent into (an admittedly soft sell) rock bottom gets you on her side in a way that is refreshing for a female lead.
Perhaps the movie borders on twee at times. A sub-plot where Kate helps out at a homeless shelter edges on the side of her own personal satisfaction rather than initial goodwill. The clutch of quirky and fun homeless people recalls a Curtis approach that uses glowering loveliness to paper over any actual problems faced by the subjects of the scene. Kate and her families’ eastern European origins play into a Brexit backdrop that could have been dug into more or not at all. Yet such things still feel earned and adding of flavour rather than haphazard scene fillers. Indeed the reconciling of her past (Kate’s real name is Katarina) plays into her character arc well.
Last Christmas delivers a gift of the ideal blend of romantic comedy. It’s genuinely heart-warming but not sickly sweet or overly gnarled. Much more than just a George Michael soundtrack and a festive advent calendar, Feig saves an emotional bite for the final act that is bittersweet in a way that is totally earned. Should you choose Last Christmas then I can be confident that there will be no re-gifting of your unwrapped delights.
Words by Mike Record