The Seventh Day of Christmas: Last Christmas
Romance and Christmas have become very comfortable bedfellows in the movies. Perhaps best exemplified in Love Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003), the romance genre represents Christmas values in its own way, for what is more familial and magical than love? One of the most high-profile recent offerings that combines these two genres is Last Christmas (Paul Feig, 2019). Upon release, its promotion made it appear to be a typical, formulaic seasonal romance inspired by the Wham! song of the same name. Now, one year on, when the title has become apposite, let’s assess whether this movie will become a Christmas staple, or whether this is the last year in which we should give it any attention whatsoever.
Last Christmas is flawed in numerous ways, so let me pose a few questions for you to ponder. First, is basing your entire movie on a four-minute pop record ever going to work? I mean, sure, we’ve had films based on video games (which hardly ever work), and even a franchise based on a fairground ride (the Pirates of the Caribbean [2003-] movies, which, no matter what one prominent critic says, do actually work quite well).[i] In this case, the source material limits the film and makes it predictable. You just have to listen to the song’s chorus to guess at the twist which supposedly shakes up the climax of the film, and the whole stuffing the film’s score with George Michael and Wham! songs feels clumsily contrived and certainly gets samey after a while. Second, can Emilia Clarke actually act? Sure, we all loved her as the Mother of Dragons, but I think it was probably her inability to step up to the acting challenges in Game of Thrones’s (2011-2019) final series that contributed to its aura of disappointment. Her subsequent movies have been relative flops, and again in Last Christmas, she seems unable to command the dialogue in a way which feels believable. This might not be entirely her fault however, which brings me onto my next question: should Emma Thompson steer well clear of screenwriting in the future? I love Thompson, I think she is one of the world’s greatest actresses, and she is brilliantly funny off-screen too, but tragically that wit fails to hit the mark in Last Christmas. In fact, I am reminded of the time that Harrison Ford told George Lucas that “you can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it”, because you feel a similar problem inflicts Thompson’s writing. It probably sounds so witty and clever on paper, but coming from the mouths of Clarke and Henry Golding, it all feels so unnatural and plastic. Just as bad is the character Thompson carves out for herself, as Petra, a Yugoslavian immigrant and the mother of Clarke’s character. I’m sure Thompson had great intentions with this character, but it jars seeing a British actress put on an Eastern European accent and take a geopolitical stand using her fictionalised mouthpiece. It feels uncomfortably exploitative and you feel the film would have been far better served, if only from an authenticity standpoint, if the part had been either written or played by someone who had actually lived the experiences of Petra, or at least been closer to them and the lasting effects of them than Thompson has ever been. A final question: can Paul Feig direct? I accept that it might be a question of personal taste (but then, what in cinema isn’t?), but I have never fully enjoyed any of his films. There is always something lacking, and, though like me he seems to enjoy an unexpected narrative twist, it is never executed as thrillingly and surprisingly as you would hope, the effects lessened by unnecessary silliness, or, in the case of Last Christmas, predictability.
The film isn’t all bad, and you feel there are the hints of wonderful ideas buried underneath all the crap. Golding, in the role of Tom, is as charming as he always is, and there are some very emotional scenes between him and Clarke’s Kate. Indeed, the whole concept of Kate’s character being a lost young woman suffering from the trauma of a life-changing event and struggling to make her way in life is excellent, and a lot of work goes into the development of her character, even if it doesn’t pay off well enough in the end. There are positive goodwill messages here too, of self-healing and finding friendship by helping others. And, of course, the film resolves with the reunification of the family, bringing the Christmas magic, even if Kate’s romance doesn’t quite pan out the way she hopes. Overall, then, the film comes across as a mediocre affair, with just enough heart to save it from complete obsolescence.
At time of writing, Last Christmas is available to watch on Now TV/Sky Cinema.
[i] Mark Kermode, Britain’s leading film critic, often rants with hilarious effect about his hatred for this particular franchise: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZMfe4qnoKU