The Christmas season is upon us once again – in the middle of November, of course – and looking back at this decade as a whole, it’s weird to think that there’s not really been much in the way of memorable Christmas films from the 2010s. The closest we’ve come is probably Arthur Christmas back in 2011, but for the last out-and-out Christmas film to really capture the public’s imagination, one would have to go way way back to 2003, when Elf and Love Actually released.
More than anything, the last decade of Decembers has been dominated by studio blockbusters: from The Hobbit films to a succession of Star Wars stories, Christmas time has become something of a second summer for the film industry. It does mean that more original stories celebrating the season have been edged out of the limelight; given the current state of the world as a whole, and the bleak landscape for original films of the future, perhaps a bit of on-screen Christmas cheer is sorely needed.
Emma Thompson and Paul Feig have sought to provide just that with Last Christmas: a romcom very loosely based on the Wham! song of the same name, featuring songs from the late George Michael. It’s the latest in the growing trend of films basing their stories on or around the repertoire of famous musicians, most recently seen in Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded By The Light.
In Last Christmas, Emilia Clarke plays Kate, the daughter of refugees from what was once Yugoslavia, drifting from friend’s sofa to friend’s sofa and getting by on a job as a helpful elf in a Covent Garden shop which sells the tattiest of Christmas tat year round. She’s a die-hard George Michael fan who one day bumps into Tom, played by Henry Golding, and their sporadic meetings and partings make up the bulk of the film’s story.
For a film which seeks to frame its narrative around a particular artist’s music, Last Christmas seems a little stuck on what it wants to do with George Michael’s back catalogue. The choices themselves are amusingly obvious: Kate will wake up to “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” and quickly see a one-night-stand out of her friend’s flat with “Fastlove” in the background, to name a couple.
Thompson has gone on record to say that she received the singer’s blessing before his tragic death in 2016 to make this film and use his music, but the opportunity to immortalise George Michael and Wham!’s music in film feels somewhat wasted overall. In comparison to a film like, say, Rocketman – admittedly a very different film to this one – which shares a connection with Last Christmas through basing their stories around the musical work of two out and proud gay men, the latter film has a bit of a disconnect between the film’s story and its musical inspiration (did the relationship here really need to be a heteronormative one, especially in a film meant as a celebration for gay icon George Michael?).
This weird feeling of disconnect extends to the film’s political message: there are moments where the story explores life in Britain after the 2016 EU referendum – Kate’s family being especially anxious as refugees in the UK – but its effect on the story and on Kate is at best obscure. She eschews her family ties for much of the film’s running time (her real name is Katarina by which she refuses to go), and aside from the aforementioned anxiety from her mum, played by Thompson with a stereotypical Eastern-European accent, the scenes directly about Brexit feel almost presented without comment.
Last Christmas‘ saving grace is with its lead characters. Clarke and Golding absolutely commit to the madness of the film’s script, and they both manage to keep everything running by virtue of their chemistry alone. This is Clarke’s film first and foremost, and it’s a great joy to see her engaging with a script which gives her far more to do than the vast majority of the writing she was handed in Game of Thrones. Clarke brings warmth and not a small amount of charm to a character who could have easily been lost in Kate’s initial cynicism at the world, plus she even gets to do a good old fashioned Christmas sing-song.
As for Golding, he looks like he’s having the time of his life. Every one of Tom’s scenes is elevated by the wide-eyed optimism with which he’s played, and his earnestness becomes the guiding light for the film to reach for when some of the broader comedic moments fall flat.
As a Christmas movie, Last Christmas is a solid piece of work, but not one which feels like it’ll stand the test of time against other films celebrating the festive season. As a romcom though, Feig and Thompson have crafted a warm and wholesome treat, and its defiant kindheartedness works as a powerful antidote to the increasingly cynical world around us.