Somewhere in the last decade, audiences, and in turn financiers, fell out of love with the London-set romantic comedy, a subgenre that had almost single-handedly been keeping the British film industry alive, or at least somewhat in profit. They were repetitive, predictable and filled with characters who were exclusively, uncomfortably, posh and white yet they were also undeniably effective crowd-pleasers and like many, I’ve missed them, as parodical as they can often be. So has Emma Thompson, it seems. Because with all the confidence of a well-spoken Oxbridge alumnus delivering a climactic declaration of love in a public place, she’s chucked together Last Christmas, a thirsty little festive film eager to remind us all why we actually loved Love Actually in the first place.
Based on the song by Wham! because sure, Last Christmas tells the story of George Michael-obsessed, former Yugoslavian 26-year-old Kate (33-year-old Emilia Clarke, with a regular posh accent), a Disneyfied Fleabag whose foibles are cutesy rather than catastrophic. She spouts lines like “Why is my life so shit?” and “A shitting bird just shit in my eye!” while working in an an all-year-round Christmas store in Covent Garden (!!!) dressed as an elf (an outfit she keeps on even when she’s off the clock for some bizarre, unexplained reason). But Kate really wants to be a professional singer although she’s technically sort of homeless and lives on whatever couch she can find. She avoids her concerned mother (Thompson, thick comedy accent), exhausts her beleaguered boss (Michelle Yeoh, trying her darndest), frustrates her ever-decreasing circle of friends and drifts from shag to shag while struggling to make anything substantial last.
But then, in one of the clumsiest meet-cutes in recent memory, while dusting Christmas decorations, she spots a handsome stranger (Henry Golding) staring at a bird. After a shit on her face (from the bird, not Golding), the pair start to fall for each other and go on a number of geographically questionable saunters around the city. But why does he keep disappearing on her? Can she sort out her life? And would Richard Curtis approve of this?
The spoiler-free answer to all three questions would be that you can probably figure it out from the first 20 minutes. It’s all-too-easy to ridicule the work of Curtis but there was a deceptive precision to his scripts, seamlessly balancing the rom with the com, and an awareness of the films that have inspired Last Christmas only serves to highlight its utter incompetence in comparison. It might look the part, with the director Paul Feig successfully capturing the glossy, tourist-friendly London one would crave from such a film, but the script feels like a rejected first draft with unfunny filler one-liners and a scrappy, ill-thought through narrative. It’s a beautifully wrapped Christmas gift that’s filled with rotten turkey leftovers.
Kate is the sort of falling-into-a-heap-of-rubbish-without-messing-up-her-artfully-dishevelled-outfit archetype that Feig so carefully managed to avoid in his comic magnum opus Bridesmaids. In that film, Kristen Wiig’s life was a genuine, unvarnished mess and she was a sometimes brittle, often selfish character struggling to get her life back together. But here, there’s a defiant avoidance of nuance or depth in Thompson’s script, co-written by performance artist Bryony Kimmings, and Kate is nothing more than a jumble of sub-Bridget Jones quirks whose heavy eye makeup is used to convey that she’s going through a really rough time. Clarke is also miscast, playing Kate with an uncomfortably forced, overly mannered schtick, trying to emulate a Meg Ryan or a Julia Roberts but without any of their inherent charm. Golding has a bit more of that to spare but the couple has no real chemistry and he’s lumbered with a secret that turns his character into a rather tiresome cad.
There are a number of need-to-discuss issues attached to a gonzo, if painfully obvious, third act development that would be impossible to explain here without spoiling but there’s an uneasiness over how the film frames the redemption Kate seems to need and the ways in which she needs to receive it. The final 30 minutes also mean that so much of the film can be repositioned as both unintentionally funny and unintentionally creepy in ways that will likely lead to a stocking’s worth of memes over the coming weeks.
Thompson reportedly gained the blessing of George Michael before his death in 2016 and sees the film as a tribute to his music. One of the film’s few plus points is the opportunity to listen to so many of his songs up on the big screen but it’s also the fifth film in the last year that’s used the much-loved back catalogue of a singer or band to carry the heavy emotional lifting that a subpar script can’t manage by itself. Yesterday, Rocketman, Blinded by the Light, Bohemian Rhapsody and now Last Christmas have manipulated our attachment to familiar music in order to force us into feeling something that’s ultimately unearned. So while, Praying for Time still has a hair-raising impact, it’s the song rather than the maudlin scenes it’s paired with that leads us to emote. It’s also an astonishingly straight and sanitised film to be paired with the music of Michael, one of the most unabashedly queer and unapologetically hypersexual public figures in entertainment. Wouldn’t a love story between two men have been a more fitting tribute?
The combination of Michael’s music, a cosy festive aesthetic, picturesque London scenery and an irresistible fascination over what the plot morphs into does make Last Christmas sort of digestible in a half-watching-while-drunk-on-eggnog kind of way but this really is a clunky, charmless disappointment. Last Christmas is, or at least should be, cancelled.