Image Credit: Universal Pictures
Directed by: Paul Feig
Starring: Madison Ingoldsby, Emma Thompson, Boris Isakovic
Running time: 1hr 43min
Paul Feig’s Last Christmas tells the tale of Kate (Emilia Clarke), a messy, down-on-her-luck 20-something with a secret and a passion for singing. We follow her as she clumsily navigates her life; between her day job as an elf at a year-round Christmas shop, interactions with her quirky, dysfunctional family, various audition attempts and night-time encounters with a handsome stranger called Tom (Henry Golding), also burdened with a secret. One would expect great things from the team that this film garnered. Feig’s previous works include the successful comedies Bridesmaids and Spy. Emma Thompson and husband Greg Wise contribute the story, whilst popular actors Clarke and Golding were the stars of such romance films as Me Before You and Crazy Rich Asians. With the assistance of George Michael’s schmaltzy Christmas hit as a leitmotif, Last Christmas plays on the success of earlier British rom-coms such as Love Actually, and attempts to revamp the genre for the so-called “Brexit age”.
To explain this further, I shall allude to plot details without giving away the storyline. The key plot twist that dominates the last chapter of the film is, unfortunately, easily anticipated. It could have been a great use of the titular song, but instead its sudden inclusion renders earlier scenes null and bizarre. The film’s heart is in the right place, as Kate journeys along a path to self-actualization and festive goodwill – yet the plot is thinly delivered. It is notable that the ending does not conform to romantic stereotypes. However, the execution of this is conducted with as little grace as Kate supposedly conducts her own life. This all contributes to an effect – an aftertaste – that is far less the centrepiece of any Christmas dinner, but much more the last, unwanted sprout, sodden with too much boiling.
Furthermore, the film’s characterisations somehow manage to feel as out of place as the kitschy all-year Christmas shop. The poor and unchallenged use of stereotypes in the film contributes to its lack of charm. Kate is revealed to have Yugoslavian origins; her full name is Katarina, and having her repeatedly insist that “It’s Kate, not Katarina” is one of the film’s fallbacks – a metaphor for her lack of belonging, and a trope that very quickly becomes tired. Kate is a cartoon, a caricature of the broken woman – a kind of Nightmare Before Christmas-Fleabag who transitions from overly-dramatic, self-absorbed drifter to the very embodiment of the so-called “spirit of giving”. Her mockery of Tom’s voluntary role at a soup kitchen for the homeless (“well aren’t you the saint!”) foreshadows all-too-obviously her own transition to keen helper at that institution.
Other characters in Kate’s life contribute to the confusion. She has a supposedly complex and troubling relationship with her mother Petra (Emma Thompson) – based on a suspicion that she “enjoyed” the period when her daughter was seriously ill. Despite the dynamic that this sets up, from the moment that their relationship is properly introduced it is mostly played for laughs. Her father Ivan (Boris Isakovic) clearly suffers from depression – addressed in one scene and not mentioned again – whilst sister Marta’s (Lydia Leonard) closeted relationship with her girlfriend, known about only by Kate, possesses no complexity. The sister’s storyline has promise, yet merely becomes a device used to escalate tensions between Kate and her family (and, at the film’s denouement, resolve them). The use of a non-heterosexual relationship in the film is, sadly, very much the shoehorning of a cinematic stereotype. Kate’s family background ultimately fails to enhance the plot and her character – instead, coming across as a cheap way of grounding Kate in an unstable life that gives her character an absent sense of being stranded. The ultimate issue is that the film tries to focus both on Kate and her issues primarily, and also paint a family background that is riddled with its own difficulties. Within the time constraints of a feature film, Thompson, Wise and Feig don’t quite manage to pull it off.
The film also suffers from terribly clunky writing. Awkward one-liners and bad jokes are, unfortunately, prevalent throughout. In one particularly crass scene Kate’s boss, “Santa”, utters the stinker “I nickname her “Lazy” the elf, but it should be “crushing disappointment””. Such remarks, even in the glittery, saccharine land of Christmas rom-coms, are unforgivable. The film falls equally short in its use of the music of George Michael. Instead of providing a clear musical impetus for the film, the only thing that is clear is that Kate is an adoring fan of Michael, a fact which contributes to the egotism of a film that otherwise has very little to do with Michael’s musical canon.
Last Christmas glitters with all the tenacity of a tinselled tree, but without any of the charm. The experience of watching this film suggests to me that perhaps, the Christmas romcom has had its time. Then again, maybe I am too cynical – I can imagine the film being enjoyable under the influence of a few glasses of festive tipple. Whichever it is, watching Last Christmas felt like eating Christmas dinner – but in February or August.
Editor's note: this film was screened at City Screen York.