Last Christmas is a strange film, with an identity crisis every bit as troublesome as the one its protagonist is dealing with.
Said protagonist is Kate (Emilia Clarke) – formerly known as Katarina, but currently in the process of rejecting her Yugoslavian parents and heritage. She’s been critically ill and is recovering from surgery, but she’s struggling to accept the new version of herself, refusing to follow her doctor’s orders, desperate to pursue her singing dreams but unable to perform as well as she used to. It’s a lot for a young woman to cope with, and she’s worn her friends’ patience thin. Her boss (Michelle Yeoh) is wearying of her too: Kate is lazy, inattentive and unreliable, not qualities Santa needs from an elf-assistant in her Covent Garden Christmas shop.
Just as things seem to be spiralling out of control, up pops Tom (Henry Golding), a charming but mysterious stranger, who helps Kate to negotiate her way through the thorny issues she’s entangled in. He’s elusive, though, not relationship material, he tells her. But will her heart heed what he says?
I quite like the schmaltzy plot, but the telling (writing by Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings; direction by Paul Feig) is pretty artless, with huge signposts to the so-called twist, which you can spot from about the twenty-minute mark. And so many interesting ideas are set up and then abandoned, the running time taken up instead with not-quite-there comedic sequences, and characters interacting in ways that don’t convince.
For example, what about George Michael? Kate has a sticker on her suitcase and posters on her bedroom wall; she says she ‘loves’ his music, and it makes a decent backing track. But – so what? Her relationship with her idol is never explored; we don’t learn a single thing about what he means to her. Except, of course, for a queasily literal interpretation of the titular song. And, um, why no gay men – not a solitary one! – in a movie supposedly inspired by Michael? That seems a shocking omission, given his outspoken views on gay rights and representation.
I’m interested in Kate’s rejection of her roots in the former Yugoslavia too. This is a tantalising thread, her frustration with her mother (Emma Thompson) tied up with her desire not to be an outsider, not to worry like her mum about Brexit and hate crimes. But it’s not taken anywhere. True, as she begins to get herself together, we see her speaking her parents’ language to help some strangers on a bus, but there’s a lot more to unravel here.
It’s not all bad. It’s good to see a London rom-com where the characters’ accommodation is credible, for example: all sweet-but-very-cramped apartments or long-commute-away-small-terraces. This makes a change from the usual run of things, where we’re often expected to suspend our disbelief and accept that ordinary working people can live in mansions in zones 1 and 2.
But that’s not enough, is it? Last Christmas can’t quite decide what it wants to be: a knockabout comedy, a heartwarming tale of redemption, or a political satire. Sadly, it misses all three targets. This is an over-stuffed turkey of a film, all promise and no prize.