Did I almost immediately guess the twist in Last Christmas? Yes, and you probably will too. Did it in any way hinder my enjoyment of this festive Yuletide rom-com? Hell no! The key to enjoying Last Christmas is to completely give into its schmaltzy power. Directed by Paul Feig from a script co-written by Emma Thompson and her husband, Greg Wise, with the late George Michael’s blessing, it’s a Christmas earworm in movie form — you don’t exactly want to like it, but you can’t help yourself. Don’t fight it!
The beating heart (yes, that is a pun) of this movie is undeniably Emilia Clarke. The mother of dragons has shed her Khaleesi robes to reveal a rom-com queen in a leopard jacket and combat boots. She plays Kate, whose near-death experience from a heart condition one year earlier has left her struggling with how to move forward. In the very first scene, we see her through her parents’ eyes: An angelic teen singing a George Michael song during a Christmas choir recital in the former Yugoslavia, circa 1999. The Kate we meet in 2017 London is distinctly not that. Clarke plays her as an almost too-charmingly quirky mess, but she has enough charisma to pull it off.
Having moved out of her parents’ house, Kate’s crashing on friends’ couches until they kick her out. (They inevitably do, mostly because she has no regard for their possessions, privacy, or pets.) Though she dreams of being a singer, she currently works as an elf in a year-round Christmas shop owned by the indomitable “Santa” (a truly funny Michelle Yeoh). Basically, Kate does not have her shit together. And as we all know from years of these movies, Christmas is the time where all the things that are going wrong the rest of the year get exponentially worse.
Enter Tom (Henry Golding), who shows up when Kate’s at her lowest point. During their first meeting, he shared his motto with her: “Look up!” She does, and promptly gets bird shit in her eye. It must have brought her luck because from there, things start to get a little better. The two go on a first date (a walk through the smallest alley in London, ending with a chat on a bench in a literal secret garden) and then a second (illegal ice skating practice so Kate can nail her Frozen on ice audition), and Kate begins to, if not take better care of herself, then at least think about it. Still, there’s something fishy about Tom, who projects big manic pixie dream boy energy, and is hard to nail down. He doesn’t have a phone (he locked it in a closet to better focus on the world around him), and always seems to be strolling by when Kate’s in the middle of a crisis.
Golding and Clarke share crackling chemistry, bouncing Thompson’s zingers off each other with almost melodic comedic timing. Feig’s pacing makes their courtship feel like a whimsical dance, and it helps that this version of London could have been pulled straight out of a snowglobe. It’s hard to believe that this is only Golding’s third-ever movie, so effortless is his appeal.
Still, Last Christmas’ real emotional pull lies beyond Tom and Kate’s budding relationship. Thompson centers the action against the backdrop of an impending Brexit vote, a major source of anxiety for Kate’s parents, who, as refugees from the war in the former Yugoslavia, fear that they might once more be expelled from their home. Thompson plays her mother, Petra, with a woeful Eastern European attitude, and somewhat questionable accent. Kate, who’s real name is Katarina, starts off rejecting her heritage, preferring to Anglicize her name and mannerisms. Her journey towards healing her body runs parallel with one that leads her to accept her identity in the face of others who might reject it.
Somewhere in there is a whole plotline about helping the homeless, and Yeoh’s character falling in love with a German man obsessed with sauerkraut. I know it sounds crazy, but it works if you let it. That is the magic of Last Christmas. Oh, and did I mention that the soundtrack features several George Michael bangers, including a version of “Last Christmas” screeched by a very creepy-looking toy gibbon? Don’t sleep on this movie!