Last Christmas (2019)
Who doesn’t have a little Christmas baggage?
Don’t let the title fool you as Last Christmas isn’t really a Christmas film. A better way to describe it would be a feel-good romantic comedy that features the music of George Michael and his pop duo Wham!, which also happens to take place over the ho-ho-holiday season. Directed by Paul Feig, who helmed 2011’s Bridesmaids (the quintessential rom-com of our time), Last Christmas is a light, fluffy, crowd-pleasing distraction, one that simultaneously reminds us that everyone has a story, and that we should all treat those around us with compassion, especially during the festive season when life gets a wee bit crazier.
Set in 2017, Last Christmas centers on Kate (former Mother of Dragons Emilia Clarke), a lost soul who’s made a stack of bad decisions, scampering around London with no place to really call home. Dressed in her jingly elf costume, a humiliating uniform she’s forced to wear while working at a year-round Christmas shop called Yuletide Wonderful, Kate engages in a slew of reckless behavior; she drinks too much, hooks up with random men so that she has a place to sleep at night, and avoids her Yugoslavian parents, ashamed of her mother Petra’s (Emma Thompson) immigrant anxieties, which have been amplified post-Brexit.
You see, Kate used to be a gifted singer back in Yugoslavia in the 1980s, but has since fallen from grace, hitting an all-time low after undergoing a life-saving heart transplant — since then, she claims that she ‘hasn’t felt like herself.’ Still determined that she’s fated to be a star (she’s a big George Michael fan), Kate spends her days fumbling through life, tottering from one embarrassing singing audition to the next, her self-sabotaging nature knocking down any chance of success.
Everything changes when she bumps into Tom (Henry Golding), a peculiar-yet-dashing guy with an air of mystery about him — Tom doesn’t have a cell phone (he tells Kate that it’s locked inside a cupboard at home), rides around London on a bicycle and has a tendency to disappear for large chunks at a time. Tom’s oddly interested in Kate (although she can’t quite understand why) and, as the pair become closer, tries to get her to ‘look up’ to see what she’s been missing in the world, hoping it’d help her find focus in her uncertain life. And, it eventually works as Kate begins to show interest in the homeless shelter at St. Benedict’s where Tom volunteers. Nevertheless, just as things appear too good to be true, and Kate attempts to get closer to the secretive Tom, he pulls back, afraid to bare more of himself to her.
Built around the music of George Michael, mainly the lyrics of Andrew Ridgeley and Michael’s 1984 smash ‘Last Christmas,’ writers Feig, Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings (with story credit going to Thompson and her husband, Greg Wise), use the Yuletide smash to explore heartache, gratitude, and how our destructive nature can often hurt those around us. At its core, Last Christmas is really a story about the heart — how to use it, and, by extension, how to live and love yourself. When we first meet Kate, she’s a bit of a jerk — she treats customers with aloofness and doesn’t care about anything, even forgetting to lock the door at work, allowing thugs to get inside and trash the boutique store at night. Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones (2011-19), however, does wonders with the character, transforming the self-loathing screw-up into an extremely likable protagonist. Through Tom, who acts with integrity and kindness, Kate learns how to be a better person, and Clarke totally makes the transition from Scrooge to Santa convincing.
Feig also interprets the titular song lyrics quite literally, with the third act featuring a twist that most seasoned moviegoers would probably spot coming from a mile away — irrespective, the darn thing still got me all choked up! Additionally, the jukebox soundtrack manages to give Last Christmas a heck of an assist, filmmakers utilizing a handful of songs by George Michael and Wham! to elevate the proceedings, ditties such as ‘Faith,’ ‘Everything She Wants,’ ‘Praying for Time,’ and my favorite track from the film, the previously unreleased ‘This is How (We Want You To Get High),’ which plays over the end credits.
Furthermore, the sparkling cinematography by John Schwartzman, A Simple Favor (2018), is merry and bright, while the production team does a commendable job in transforming London into a Winter Wonderland. With that said, not everything works a treat, chiefly a kooky match-making subplot that revolves around Kate’s wistful-yet-strict boss ‘Santa’ (Michelle Yeoh), who’s taken by an eccentric sauerkraut-obsessed German she eventually calls ‘Boy’ (Peter Mygind).
While I’ve already spoken about Clarke (who’s fantastic here), the film sports a wonderfully diverse cast (without feeling forced), all of whom do an excellent job. Henry Golding, Crazy Rich Asians (2018), is effortlessly charming as the enigmatic Tom, who’s basically the beating heart of the film, with Golding and Clarke sharing some frisky chemistry and interplay, their dynamic selling the drama and comedy. Lydia Leonard, The Fifth Estate (2013), is decent as Kate’s more disciplined older sister Marta, a successful lawyer who’s in a same-sex relationship, hiding it from her folks by telling them that her girlfriend is her roommate. Boasting a thick accent, Emma Thompson slays it as Kate and Marta’s mom Petra, a worrywart who’s never adjusted to life in London after fleeing from her war-torn country. Serbian actor Boris Isaković also does a bang-up job as the girls’ father Ivan, an ex-former Yugoslavian lawyer who escapes from his wife’s nagging by working as a cab driver. In fact, the scenes with the family unit are some of the movie’s finest.
Elsewhere, relative unknown Ritu Arya has a couple of good moments as Kate’s childhood friend Jenna, who lets her bestie sofa surf when she’s in a jam, much to the disapproval of her husband Rufus (Ansu Kabia), whose tolerance for Kate’s recklessness has grown more than a little thin. In smaller roles, UK telly actor Ben Owen-Jones leaves an impression as Danny, the crippled coordinator of St. Benedict’s mission, as does Calvin Demba, Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017), another volunteer who’s clearly got a thing for Kate. Lastly, small-screen star David Hargreaves threatens to steal the flick as the impoverished Arthur, a character based on the assembly of homeless people writer Thompson has met on the streets over the years.
Drawing influence from classic Christmas-themed films such as 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Richard Curtis’ Love Actually (2003), Last Christmas is a funny, heartfelt, and touching holiday surprise (one that’s sweeter than pudding), and a fitting tribute to the timeless tracks of George Michael. Just like the aforementioned titles, Paul Feig’s Christmas cracker is sure to become a new festive favorite, destined to be enjoyed for years to come. In the words of George Michael: give it to someone special.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Last Christmas is released through Universal Pictures Australia