Review: Last Christmas

This 2019 romantic comedy, loosely based on the 1984 Wham! song of the same name, is directed by Paul Feig. It stars Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson, Michelle Yeoh, Lydia Leonard, Boris Isakovic and Peter Mygind.

Katarina (Clarke), going by the name of Kate, lives in London after coming over with her family to escape the 1991 Yugoslavia war. Her mother, Petra (Thompson) and father, Ivan (Isakovic), are at breaking point and her sister Marta (Leonard) is a successful lawyer. Kate works in an all-year-round Christmas shop, run by her boss known as “Santa” (Yeoh). She has no fixed abode after letting down all her old tenants, and has no real goal in life. Tom is a handsome young man with a zest for life who takes Kate under his wing to show her what she can do, and should do, to help herself and others. But Tom has a secret motive for being with Kate, and as their bond grows, it’s a secret that can’t stay hidden for long… Then, one day, she meets Tom Webster (Golding) outside the store.

A film synopsis on paper that reads “based on the music of George Michael and Wham!” doesn’t initially grab you or belong to any immediate genre. However, the talented Emma Thompson as screenwriter and Paul Feig as director (who was still on the naughty list for 2016s ‘Ghostbusters’) unite to deliver not only a wonderful ode to the music of the late, great George Michael and his 80s band Wham!, but a schmaltzy, whimsical, cosy festive romantic comedy with all the trimmings that hasn’t been seen in many years for the Christmas genre.

Populated with a soundtrack of Michael’s music from the 80s, 90s and 00s, and the title being on his most popular tracks ‘Last Christmas’, the film narrative doesn’t try to shoehorn anything and everything George Michael into things to make it work. Kate, played with infectious joy and sugar-coated snark by Emilia Clarke, is a lifelong George Michael fan, so finding solace in his music and lyrics resonates through the film. It just doesn’t hurt at all that the soundtrack is populated with his memorable and poignant music.

Clarke is one you can’t fail to fall for when she is given material as sweet and safe as this. Spending the film mostly dressed as a Christmas Elf, she has so much wit and cheek about her, she’s impossible not to just want to be around. She’s just what a festive film needs in a bright, beaming smile of a lead with mighty eyebrows to boot. It’s also worth noting that this girl can, and does, act when the emotion and façade of her ordeals bubble over be it only for brief moments. Kate holds herself together as best she can to protect herself in the bustling city she lives and works in, but underneath Clarke shows there is a constant worry behind her smile.

This is where relative newcomer Henry Golding comes in, a charming and handsome young man acting as a somewhat guardian angel to our lost Kate. He knows London. He knows both scales of the social spectrum and has seen many things to help guide Kate through it all and come out stronger. Every Christmas film needs that one spark to shine through the darker moments, and Golding equally his instantly likeable and charming opposite Clarke to be a real sweet couple as they explore the city and the festive season together and what it means.

With support from Emma Thompson struggling to adapt to a very radical new world twenty years on and even bringing Brexit into play, she’s the loving, grounded reality to the story of not knowing where to belong or even how much to accept of your past and future. A few familiar British comedic faces pop up in smaller roles for some cutting marks of humour including Peter Serafinowicz, Rebecca Root, Ingrid Oliver and Sue Perkins, all adding to the desperation Kate experiences in trying to get somewhere fast.

A real shining star atop the tree is Michelle Yeoh, stealing the scenes she is in with her stiletto heels, razor-sharp tongue and no-nonsense mothering of Kate and running of her festive shop.  Having popped up in Western hits such as ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and ‘Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2’, it’s been a while since we’ve had her on-screen for so long. Here, we are treated to full-on Yeoh who looks stunning at 57 and is a real treat to watch. She and Clarke share all the best moments together as an unlikely mother/daughter pairing who want to love each other more and how they work, but barriers need to be knocked down to allow it to happen. Watching this come to fruition is yet another of the payoffs for this gentle film.

Being a festive romantic comedy, there is magic and fantasy in the air at times. Some of those seasonal twists and plots you will see coming such as how one old misery can try to turn around and be something good in society. But, it’s all part of the season. It’s what this time of year is all about, and at least now in December, we can all gush about ‘Last Christmas’ being one of the best festive films in many recent years.

It doesn’t break the genre, but it does use the source material of George Michael perfectly in both the film’s title and the soundtrack. There’s even room for a cheeky Andrew Ridgley cameo in the final act of the film. Michael and Wham! crafted some poppy and haunting songs over their years active, and every emotion Kate feels can be summed up in one of the tunes be it the bubble-gum ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’, the festive ‘Last Christmas’ itself or the powerful ‘Praying For Time’.

There are various Christmas tunes dotted through as well. There are twinkling Christmas lights. There are trees, decorations, snow and cosy cups of hot chocolate and treats. It’s Christmas schmaltz at it’s best thanks to a talented crew and a more than talented cast.

And guaranteed you’ll have something in your eye by the time the credits roll.

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