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‘Last Christmas’ Review: Christmas Story With A Haunting Twist?

Emilia Clarke’s character doesn’t get stabbed in the heart this time around

Jessica Xalxo Nov 11, 2019

Emilia Clarke in ‘Last Christmas.’ Photo: Universal Pictures India

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The thing about romantic comedies is that they fail to surprise audiences anymore. Add the film under the holiday banner and et voilà, you’ll have yourself a predictable couple of hours watching a movie trying to undo the cops of the genre — even as it fails spectacularly at doing so. Last Christmas falls somewhere in between.

The film (directed by Paul Feig) starring Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson and more is a hearty try at portraying the human stories that unwind and heighten when Christmas rolls around the corner. Set in 2017 London post Brexit, Last Christmas situates its protagonist (Katarina aka Kate played by Clarke) in a world that reflects the realities of the times. Homelessness and unemployment in the U.K.  are at a high as refugee migrants and immigrants alike feel the implications of the rift in Europe’s single market economy. 

Then there’s Kate, the 20-something elf working in a year-round Christmas store on Convent Street, who is wilfully homeless because, well, she’s not ready to go home yet. The George Michael fan — her trolley bag bears a sticker saying ‘George Michael Forever’ — can’t catch a break at the many theater auditions she gives and her boss is dismayed by her grumpy attitude. “Let’s pretend Mary had twins and you can have both,” she says to a customer confused between two baby Jesus figurines — right after she punches a lit up reindeer. 

Kate isn’t a character you hate. While she comes across as the grinch, she’s representative of the people who can’t hop onto the holiday bandwagon. After all, a merry season can’t always heal the experiences of a year, can it? Cue Tom Webster (Golding), a do-gooder stranger who runs into the elf, seemingly and definitely too good to be true. 

Henry Golding in ‘Last Christmas.’ Photo: Universal Pictures India

Together, Kate the resistor and Webster the idealist navigate the holiday season, and we learn more about why Kate is the way she is. There’s also a mysterious bond that the two share with each other — and it’s quite the hearty, haunting twist. Having undergone an organ transplant during the Christmas of 2016, Kate learns that she shares more than just feelings with the friendly stranger. 

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There’s more to Last Christmas than these unlikely peas in a bauble — not something I say lightly…The baubles do get quite creative in Santa’s (Yeoh) Christmas store (CC: the robot in the pink dress). As Kate slowly addresses her mental health, her mother Petra (Thompson) deals with the alienation and resistance she’s faced with once again in an existence that has already had to come to terms with the loss of its homeland. 

Emma Thompson in ‘Last Christmas.’ Photo: Universal Pictures India

The refugee from former Yugoslavia peppers Kate’s experiences with dashes of her own, expanding on the continuing trauma of living in a nation in drift. There’s a scene at the doctor’s office where she exclaims, “All my friends were murdered,” when advised to join a club for her sleeplessness and anxiety. It’s interesting to see Brexit through Petra’s eyes who offers as much insight as she does unexpected comical relief (whose mother has ever said “I’ll nail you to my dick” at the dinner table?) in Last Christmas and her character is one to watch out for.

Michelle Yeoh in ‘Last Christmas.’ Photo: Universal Pictures India

Yeoh is compelling as the Christmas store owner Santa, bringing the strong-headedness we’ve witnessed in her previous roles and the heady mindset of a human hopelessly in love. As a Chinese immigrant, she represents the people making it in an economy that isn’t quite so favorable to those who cross its border (imagine selling Christmas items to people all year along — you have to give it up for her) and Yeoh brings in a lot of nuance through Santa. With a difficult to pronounce name, she reveals having taken on several monikers to suit her many jobs — ‘Kitten’ in a pet store, ‘Muffin’ at a bakery, ‘Miso’ at a Japanese restaurant — even going on to call the man she loves ‘Boy’ because his name is too hard to pronounce, making for some interesting cultural commentary. 

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Last Christmas features the music of George Michael and Wham!, including the singer’s posthumous single “This Is How (We Want You to Get High)” which was written in 2012, shortly after Thompson met with the singer and discussed the idea of a film based on Wham!’s timeless track “Last Christmas” (even getting his blessing for the project). Michael’s signature silky vocals on the groovy, synth-laden song are a definite draw and it’s wonderful to hear the singer’s voice again. The soundtrack itself brings on a wave of nostalgia that’s hard to deny when viewing the film.

Emilia Clarke in ‘Last Christmas.’ Photo: Universal Pictures India

All in all, Last Christmas is magical yet real. It’s subtlety — whether or not you think it was well done — isn’t loud and will make you mull over the movie long after you’ve left the theater. It also succeeds at instilling some hope and even anticipation ahead of the holiday season. The one major thing working direly against the film is the déjà vu of having seen it all before — whether a pitfall of the genre or a dearth of creativity — and if you’ve already hit saturation, it’s a good idea to steer clear of Last Christmas

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