19th December: Last Christmas

Image: Universal Pictures

The Reel Time Christmas Movie Advent Calendar is exactly what it says on the tin: a classic festive countdown, except instead of chocolate behind the windows it’s my ramblings on a host of Christmas films. In true advent calendar style, films will not be announced in advance, but revealed at 6pm each day. Get involved by shouting abuse at me on Twitter and Facebook, or even just reading and sharing. I hope this can bring a little cheer at the end of a miserable year. Enjoy!

Year: 2019

Director: Paul Feig

Writers: Emma Thompson, Bryony Kimmings, Greg Wise

Starring: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson

What a curious film. When it came out a year ago, Last Christmas was a hit with some, but mercilessly destroyed by a few mean-spirited critics. From this, I expected a certain kind of film. Fluff, essentially. Something very Love Actually-ish, simple and unashamedly schmaltzy, to the delight of some and chagrin of others. In reality, this is a much odder, more surprising film than that. It is more sombre, not that rommy or that commy. In fact, I’m not sure what it is at all, really. Other than heartwarming, something it clearly aims for and thankfully delivers.

On paper, Last Christmas should be a delight, a proper rom-com with a bit of edge. It is co-written by Dame Emma Thompson, an Oscar winner who’s name carries a certain prestige wherever she goes. The director is Paul Feig, the man behind a host of comedy successes in recent years, including Bridesmaids and Spy. He is also behind A Simple Favour, a film who’s tone and casting I adore, and features one of the best first acts in recent years. Add to that the fact that the film is ‘inspired by’ the music of George Michael and Wham. Beyond the connection to the title song, I’m not sure why this was necessary, but I like old George so who’s complaining?

Then on top of that you have a seemingly perfect leading pair for a rom-com, consisting of Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding. I have not seen Game of Thrones, or actually anything else with Clarke in it, but here she displays the easy charm and charisma that she exudes in her interview appearances. Golding, meanwhile, was catapulted to fame with Crazy Rich Asians and James Bond rumours have persisted ever since. His good looks have a sweetness behind them that makes him seem wholly trustworthy, lacking any kind of macho roguishness.

He is well-suited to the role of Tom here, a manic pixie dream-boy who’s behaviour would (as Clarke’s Kate points out) be rather creepy if it weren’t for the inherent boyish goodness in Golding’s face. He regularly twirls in the street, leaps on benches and dances for no reason. He is also insistent on being incredibly nice to Kate, concerned with her welfare more than any stranger ought to be.

There is something odd about Tom, something that is revealed in the film’s final act. It is an inventive, tongue-in-cheek rug-pull, but the anticipation of it, and the writing of his character, means that Tom is always slightly detached. This does make the romance part of the film feel a little odd. There’s good chemistry between Clarke and Golding, but for the final pay-off to work there is resultantly something lacking from the relationship that stops it being one of the more memorable romantic comedy pairings.

The film does spend a long time with its characters however, particularly Kate, allowing her to connect to Tom over long, slow scenes in a way few romantic comedies do. The lack of proper investment of screen time, and thin writing of one or both parties, is something I complain about a lot with cinematic romance. So I felt it necessary to single out Last Christmas for praise in this regard. It does, at least, take its central relationship seriously. Even if it feels a little off.

As with many films in this genre, there is a strong, starry supporting cast padding out the story. Thompson herself appears in a typically witty, attention-grabbing performance as Kate’s overbearing mother. Then there is a Crazy Rich Asians reunion with Michelle Yeoh appearing alongside Golding again, although they never actually cross paths on screen. Yeoh plays Kate’s boss, a familiar character who’s stern, acerbic comments mask a loving heart. She is a stand-out in a film full of strong performances and ‘oh it’s that person from that thing’ cameos that include Sue Perkins and Catastrophe’s Rob Delaney.

There’s also a slightly odd subplot involving Kate’s Yugoslavian family and a strong anti-Brexit sentiment. Being me, I quite enjoyed the somewhat self-indulgent liberalism of it all, but from a filmmaking point of view it did seem a bit out of place, a little crowbarred into the wider story. That said, it contributes to the film’s overall spirit of kindness, generosity and the positivity of Londoners. The film’s closing shots, of several gorgeous parts of the capital, remind us that we have been watching a film about that city, its hidden beauties, and the people and the love that occupy it.

Come the end, I was left feeling a little bit confused as to what the point of it all was, and whether it was actually very good or not. The romance, as I’ve explained, is of a very odd nature, so that isn’t an overwhelming highlight. There are a few laughs in there, but I wouldn’t say it was an especially sharp or funny rom-com. The overarching thread of it all seems to be Kate’s journey of self-improvement. Yet her Bridget Jones-ish ‘mess’ is not all that unsympathetic to begin with. She is inconsiderate, sure, and treats her generous friends pretty badly. But her promiscuity is not really something in itself to be ashamed of, and I just didn’t feel that deeply that she went on a proper arc here. Maybe it’s just me, but that part of the film felt a little superficial.

What does shine through, appropriately enough, is that good old Christmas spirit again. So many times in the course of this project I have been told the same message about giving, caring and sharing. It is something I could be sick of by now, but am not. Last Christmas seems, in all that it does, to believe in this goodness and a slightly air-brushed optimism in life. Plus there’s a big sing-song at the end, which I am always a sucker for.

Where it Ranks

I still don’t fully know what I think about Last Christmas. I think those who say it is one-star trash are not to be believed, that’s for sure. But I’m also not in agreement that this a future Christmas classic, if only for a lack of pure fun and joy found in some other films. Feig’s film is in the ‘three-star’ bracket of this ranking, but I believe it is at the top of it, just above Nativity!.

  1. Die Hard
  2. Happiest Season
  3. Klaus
  4. Arthur Christmas
  5. Black Christmas
  6. The Muppet Christmas Carol
  7. Elf
  8. The Nightmare Before Christmas
  9. How the Grinch Stole Christmas
  10. Love Actually
  11. Gremlins
  12. Home Alone
  13. Krampus
  14. Last Christmas
  15. Nativity!
  16. The Holiday
  17. Noelle
  18. The Santa Clause
  19. The Grinch
  20. The Princess Switch

Andrew Young