The Holiday, Jingle All The Way, Four Christmases…each gifted a frosty release reception by critics but adored with enduring regard by cross-generational audiences. At this funny time of year, festive features defy slovenly box office returns and common sense to become the most re-watched of all time. Even It’s a Wonderful Life bombed. Hoping to join this upper echelon of absurd timelessness, Paul Feig’s Emma Thompson and Greg Wise scripted Last Christmas – met with misery in most early reviews – ticks many boxes. It is a flawed gem. Of that there can be no question. And yet, there’s likability here in abundance, driven by good humour and a genially engaging cast.
If Mamma Mia saw the songs of ABBA wrangled with little logic into the construct of a broad plot, Last Christmas reverses the process. Without giving too much away, Thompson and Wise very literally draw their narrative from the opening lines of the Wham! song from which the film earns its title. As it transpires, the entirety of Theodore Shapiro’s soundtrack here comes hoovered from the back catalogue of George Michael – with Andrew Ridgeley phoning in a brief cameo – albeit rarely with meaning. Only ‘Last Christmas’ itself leans heavily on the nose. Etymology is not the only realm of the film that dances on indiscretion, however. Nods to Brexit clang something dreadful, whilst a socially conscious core concern for the plight of London’s homeless sidesteps earnest to feel unduly preachy. Subtlety is not the film’s strong suit by any stretch of the imagination.
Substantially more successful is the casting of Game of Thrones’ very own Mother of Dragons Emilia Clarke as the film’s severely damaged heroine Kate. Styling herself somewhere between Meg Ryan and Zooey Deschanel in the ancestral heritage of romantic comedy leads, Clarke demonstrates here a talent for uniting the plausible and preposterous with a killer smile and songbird voice. She plays heavy drinking, promiscuous, underachiever Kate, an immigrant of former Yugoslavia and recent survivor of heart failure. She doesn’t like to talk about that though: ‘I don’t tell people because they get weird’. If every bit of Kate’s life screams failure – very funny sketches flashback to her chronic failings as a house guest in sequential squatting – that’s okay. Things are about to look up.
Framed in the cinescope window blocks of Santa’s (Michelle Yeoh) seasonal gift shop, Tom Webster drops into Kate’s life like an angel from the heavens above. Indeed, as the film progresses, it is as though his role is to guide her from darkness to light and pull her from the abyss. Clean shaven, artfully manicured and with butter wouldn’t melt dimples, Tom is as perfect as ever were the boy next door. It’s almost too much to bear. Not only does Tom dance like no one’s watching, he even works for Kate’s local homeless shelter. If not an angel, surely a saint? That the film is able to pull off such idealism is as much testament to our capacity to forgive an airbrush when it promises escapist relief as it is to Golding’s natural affinity to the demands of romantic comedy foibles. He and Clarke share an easy chemistry and do well to infuse Thompson’s tendency for blunt instrumentals with admirable emotional honesty.
As, with weighty inevitably, Last Christmas drops its twist, the consensus is affirmed that this will not rank among the most ardently critic-proof of festive films. Those happy to give their hearts to Feig and company, will find something special amid the snow but it would take a phenomenal dearth of cynicism to deem this faultless. There are odd, flat notes in the chorus too off beat for the intended tone and a rather limp delivery of the talent show finale cliche. Any who question the significance of George Michael and Wham! to the film’s core identity will find few answers, whilst all craving romantic satisfaction may well leave scratching their head. Yule like it, probably, but not quite love it.