Last year, for an article, I watched no less than a dozen Christmas movies in the span of a few days, most of which were productions for Hallmark and Netflix. Others, like A Smoky Mountain Christmas (1986) starring Dolly Parton, were made-for-TV productions. While for some this viewing project might have seemed like heaven, for me, it was hell. Colour me surprised, then, that the first significant studio Christmas movie of the year, Last Christmas, did not make me want to gouge my eyes out.
Last Christmas, directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids), stars Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) as Kate, a young woman who works at a Christmas shop open all year long. Kate suffers from acute selfishness and can’t seem to get her life together since she suffered from a significant medical intervention the year before. As her life seems to be falling apart, she meets a young man named Tom (Henry Golding), who helps her get life back on track.
There’s no question that the film is cloying and sentimental. It has an absurd and predictable twist that tests the audience’s commitment and has a wholly unbearable Brexit subplot. Miraculously, the movie doesn’t fall apart under the weight of these two misfires — a testament to Feig’s gentle direction and the cast’s supernatural charms.
Emilia Clarke’s comedic talents, in particular, are a revelation. She’s bright, expressive and nuanced. Her performance has many layers, striking a perfect balance between self-centred obliviousness with the unresolved trauma of her troubled home life and her medical intervention. She commands attention and dominates every scene, even facing off against a powerhouse performer like Emma Thompson (who not only stars as Kate’s stern mother but has writing and producing credit on the film).
The whole film also works as a George Michael jukebox musical. His song Last Christmas serves as inspiration for the script and is featured in nearly half of the film’s scenes. Other George Michael songs also feature predominantly, which helps to lend the film an out-of-time feel in spite of the presence of cellphones and timely Brexit stories. While rooted in the present tense, one of the strengths of Last Christmas is that in terms of pacing and romance, it feels like a throwback to a time when studio films made sense even if they were silly.
Last Christmas also succeeds in its specificity. Kate immigrated to the U.K. as a child, fleeing Croatia and former Yugoslavia due to political unrest. The treatment of Kate’s family, loving but conflict-ridden, feels wholly authentic. Home is not all sugar and spice, but a place of tension and trauma as much as it is a source of support and stability. The legacy of having their life uprooted when they resettled in the U.K. is felt two decades later. While happy to be safe and alive, there is also disappointment in the necessary sacrifices the family made in leaving their homeland.
Besides that, most of the film’s dialogue is snappy and heartfelt. It’s not just an endless string of references or cheap pratfalls that most studio comedies dole out. Each character, even minor ones, have their voice and personality. While the screenplay has a silly twist, it is still fundamentally sound. Each subplot pays off quite nicely, and everything is clear and coherent. The fact this is noteworthy is less a testament to Last Christmas’s strengths as it is to the weaknesses of most studio comedies.
As a Christmas movie, Last Christmas also feels like a step above the rest. It avoids a lot of obvious cliches about consumerism and Christmas magic (though the movie is not without supernatural invocations). It has a strong message about taking control of your life and the importance of helping others. Moreover, the film respects that it’s about Kate’s reawakening as a person and that the conflicts are interior, self-versus-self rather than pitting her against contrived outer forces. It lends the film more depth and interest.
Last Christmas might be silly in a lot of ways, but its charm overrides a lot of its failures. In fact, you might argue the silliness is the source of some of the film’s appeal. If you hate Christmas movies, this won’t change your mind, but this is undeniably a step up from even the best Hallmark or Netflix TV original. Unlike those films, which feel interchangeable and manufactured by algorithms, this movie seems to have a real heart and soul. While certainly not for all tastes, Last Christmas is a pleasant holiday surprise. ■
Last Christmas opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Nov. 8. Watch the trailer here: