What They Say:
A young woman, who has been continuously unlucky, accepts a job as a department store elf during the holidays. When Kate meets Tom on the job, her life takes a turn.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
One of the things that I’ve written and talked about at times when it comes to movies is the way audiences have changed. With so much revealed ahead of time, there’s a kind of pride that comes from some in being able to guess out what’s going to happen ahead of time, to be smarter than the film itself. I’m guilty of this when it comes to anime series because so many follow such a strict formula. What you miss by going this route is you end up on the more personal touches that everyone can bring to it and, in the case of a film like this, the more straightforward and honest manipulation that it puts into play. I love romantic comedies. I love romantic movies. And when I go into these things I’m that person that gets sniffly at that kind of commercial you see on TV. And I love it because it makes me feel amid days where there’s little time to feel.
Last Christmas has an interesting background to it in that it was a story written by Emma Thompson with her husband and she reworked it with Bryony Kimmings for the film that had Paul Feig direct. It’s fairly tame compared to a lot of Feig’s other movies but there’s an allure to that. The film revolves around a family that fled Yugoslavia as it collapsed in the late 90s and ended up in England afterward, taking place in 2017 here. In order to be somewhat timely, which will both date it and signal some of what the mood is there, it touches on Brexit and anti-immigrant sentiment several times while not trying to offer solutions or even trying to smooth it over. It simply is a part of the fabric that crashes in from time to time and causes stress and worry, largely from Thompson’s character as the family matriarch since she remembers the days of her childhood with the KGB busting through doors.
But that’s not what the film is truly about. Its central focus is on Kate, played by Emilia Clarke, a young woman who has been struggling since a medical incident a year ago. She’s always been the bright light of her mother’s eye whereas her sister Marta (Lydia Leonard) ended up having to pick up the serious side after the flight from Yugoslavia. While her father couldn’t take up as a lawyer here like there, it fell to Marta for the expectations even though she wasn’t interested in that. And that has a layer of tension with her sister, especially as Marta is keeping secrets of her own from her parents. For Kate, she’s simply trying to avoid everything related to her family because of how they handled her incident, stemming from her childhood at that, and simply feels disconnected from the world.
Which, of course, is why she works in a year-round Christmas store. It’s here that she gets chided by “Santa,” the name Michelle Yeoh’s character takes on in order to bring the joy of the holiday that she feels to those that come through the door. It’s a familiar gimmick but I absolutely love it because it lets Yeoh do something that feels different from so many other roles she’s been doing for most of her career outside of China. There’s a lightness to it that really made me grin, especially as her own little romance blossoms with a German visitor that’s just as smitten by her as she is of him when they first meet. Love at first sight is played really well by these two and it’s a wonderful little subplot amid all the chaos that comes from Kate living her life in such a haphazard way.
And it is haphazard, as she’s going from couch to couch before people kick her out for various reasons. She has no desire to go home and is trying to break into some sort of singing gig along the way as she had so much potential growing up in this area. But even that she doesn’t treat seriously as it’s kind of halfhearted. With her usually in her little green elf outfit – which wasn’t done up anywhere near as sexy as it could have been – and her small bit of luggage behind her, we see just how bad off she is regularly early on. Drinking, eating poorly, wandering about… just a mess. But what starts to change this, very slowly, is the arrival of a man named Tom into her life. A nighttime delivery man that gets around the city on his bike, the two cross paths several times with him doing his best to draw her into just hanging out together and taking in the world around them. It’s a familiar refrain, to live in the moment and smell the roses. Or the mistletoe, as the case may be. Henry Golding, who came to most people’s attention in Crazy Rich Asians as Michelle Yeoh’s son, is utterly charming here. Smooth, silly, full of expressiveness that makes you light up just watching him. It’s easy to see why the two have a connection and why she begins more and more to look for him and to see if there really may be something there.
Every film like this has a gimmick of some sort and it does reveal itself along the way. It’s awkward when it starts to reveal it initially simply because of how everyone acts, delaying the reveal, but if you haven’t figured it out by that point then it adds even more to the emotional impact when it’s revealed. I’ll admit, I do my best to turn off this critical thinking part in movies like this because it’s more about feeling than logic and reality so I had no clue what it would be as it unfolded. But it played out well and I really enjoy the way it changed the characters going forward, furthering the core themes of the work and working within the spirit of the Christmas theme as well. It delivered the right kind of feelings for me and just made me like the characters all the more, particularly as they began to put some of their pasts behind them and live in the here and now.
The film uses a lot of George Michael / Wham! songs within it and they largely play well, though I was glad they didn’t overdo it with the actual “Last Christmas” song itself. The film also brings a previously unreleased song from the massively creative artist with “This Is How (We Want You to Get High)” which you can listen to below. He’s been a part of my musical life for years and getting a little more here is great. The songs complemented the cast and story well and the actors were just great throughout. I’ve only seen Clarke in a couple of non-Game of Thrones projects but I thoroughly enjoy when she gets to just have fun like this and truly smile and emote. She’s just such a draw with how expressive she is in so many scenes. But I was particularly glad that she got to play against Henry Golding. I really liked him in Crazy Rich Asians but this film doesn’t have him dealing with the same kind of weight as that one and it’s a lighter and breezier piece. And he’s just so utterly charming with that smile and the smoothness of how he flits about the city and into Kate’s life.
While this film won’t join my rotation of must-see romantic comedies during the holidays every holiday, Last Christmas is a film that will definitely get multiple viewings from me in the years to come. It’s a low-stakes romcom with a lighter approach but just enough somber material to ground it, whether with Kate’s issues or the homeless shelter that she ends up helping out in or the touches of Brexit that impact the main family here. I like how it plays with the familiar tropes of the genre and how well it executes them with its own twists and style. It’s a fun film that if you give into the emotion and manipulation of it, and accept just how good it can feel to let that happen, it’ll make an impact on you for at least a little while. Last Christmas touched my heart just right.