Last Christmas (2019) • View trailer
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for sexual candor and profanityBy Derrick Bang
Emilia Clarke has the best eyebrows in town.
Mind you, her eyes are rather fetching as well: sparkling, seductive, laden with promise.
|Kate (Emilia Clarke), a hopeless mess made even more tragic by the bright green elf
costume required during working hours, cannot understand why Tom (Henry Golding)
keeps pursuing her, despite her constant rejection.
But the eyebrows speak volumes, as skillfully manipulated by an actress who truly understands the power of expression. She’s a force of nature who carries this enchanting film through sheer presence and personality. With her merest glance — without a word — she’s mischievous, curious, crestfallen, hopeful or absolutely shattered.
Or she smugly acknowledges a particularly tart bon mot.
Which is not to say that spoken words are superfluous here: far from it. Clarke is equally adept at tearful self-reproach and saucy one-liners, and this script — credited to Emma Thompson, Greg Wise and Bryony Kimmings — is laden with plenty of the latter. Indeed, this unapologetically sentimental holiday charmer has the wit, effervescence and cunningly sculpted characters we normally expect from Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually and Pirate Radio, among others).
The even greater surprise is that director Paul Feig — known mostly for broad-stroke pratfall comedies such as Bridesmaids, Spy and the updated Ghostbusters — takes an appropriately restrained (dare I say British?) approach to this far gentler bon bon.
Kate (Clarke) harrumphs around London in a perpetual state of disarray, forever dragging a suitcase while exhausting the patience of friends who soon regret letting her sofa-surf. She’s erratic, undependable and persistently selfish: a bundle of bad decisions who never met a bar she couldn’t shut down, or a bloke she couldn’t tolerate during another ill-advised one-nighter.
The question is from whence these self-destructive tendencies spring; answers come in captivating fits and spurts.
Her presence inevitably is heralded by the jangle of bells on her shoes: an insufferable consequence of her job as a green-garbed elf in a year-round Covent Garden Christmas shop owned and managed by the imperious “Santa” (Michelle Yeoh). When not at work or getting soused, Kate hustles to music or theatrical auditions for which she’s inevitably late and ill-prepared: a fitful attempt to reclaim the vocal glory displayed as a young choir performer, when she and her family still lived in what used to be Yugoslavia.
Once upon a time, Santa saw potential in Kate: a radiant personality that pleased customers and enhanced sales. But that Kate has long been absent; the hopeless mess who replaced her is in serious danger of losing her job.
The family dynamic is no better. Her mother, Petra (Thompson), is an old-world natterer who was a celebrity back in Yugoslavia, and never quite reconciled with the move to England. She fusses, disparages and criticizes, and has pushed the rest of the family away. Husband Ivan (Boris Isakovic) drives a cab all night, rather than come home; older daughter Marta (Lydia Leonard), sick of Kate’s self-pitying narcissism, carries her parents’ hopes and dreams on her sturdier shoulders … and resents the hell out of it.
And Petra agonizes over Kate more than the others, which has contributed to the latter’s preference for any shelter other than that of her own bedroom.
Then, one typically unsatisfying day, Kate glances outside the shop while reluctantly dusting a window display; she spots Tom (Henry Golding, making good on his memorable debut in Crazy Rich Asians). He’s handsome, conversational and immediately smitten by this train-wreck of a woman in a bright green elf suit. He suggests a stroll; Kate — unfamiliar with anything beyond a snog, a snootful and a shag — dismisses him as weird.
But Tom won’t give up, and Kate eventually thaws long enough to accept that offer of a stroll. “Look up,” he constantly suggests, encouraging her to notice the many eccentric, amusing and beautiful neighborhood details that most folks invariably fail to notice.
Which gives Feig, Thompson and cinematographer John Schwartzman an excuse to showcase London with the sort of heightened-reality glow that Jean-Pierre Jeunet made of Paris, in 2001’s Amélie. The captivating locales here range from Covent Garden, Regent Street and the Strand, to the lesser-known charms of Electric Avenue, Brick Lane and the secluded Phoenix Garden. Everything is decked out in Christmas finery, adding an even more sparkling radiance.
Despite herself, Kate grows fond of Tom. Under such circumstances, how could she not?
The setting is December 2017, and deliberately. These character dynamics take place in the wake of the Brexit vote: the momentous event that divided the country every bit as contentiously as our own red/blue split. The signs are both subtle — Petra’s fretting apprehension that they’ll all be “sent away” — and vivid, each time Kate sadly views the line of scruffy folks patiently waiting for a meal at St. Jude’s Hostel for the Homeless (actually St. Mary’s Church, in Wyndham Place), where Tom volunteers.
Yes, this also is a message movie. But the social subtext is subtle, the tone never strident or preachy. It’s merely at hand to be noticed: both by us, and by Kate.
Golding is giddy, casually charming and animated, as this guy who’s too cool for school: wholly unconcerned that his level of enthusiasm likely is viewed as strange by most people. He’s the iconic romantic partner, albeit with an enigmatic side.
Yeoh is a hoot as the snarky Santa, whose gloriously overstuffed shop is laden with both gorgeous decorations and the most aggressively tasteless Christmas ornaments ever created. (Production designer Gary Greman clearly had a field day with this setting.) The subtlety of Yeoh’s performance comes from our realization that her impatience, chagrin and waspish one-liners are only surface; she clearly adores Kate, and agonizes over this young woman’s terrible choices.
Thompson deftly avoids caricature with her handling of Petra, the sort of mother who invariably, instinctively — uncontrollably — embarrasses the rest of her family. She always says the wrong thing at the worst moment, and yet her love is genuine. Petra simply remains oblivious to the way she comes across.
Isakovic doesn’t get much screen time, which is a shame; he exudes graciousness as the hapless Ivan, unable to control the women in his life. Leonard initially is a caricature as the stiff and starchy Mara: a bit too one-dimensional, until allowed to thaw during the final act.
Even the smallest supporting roles are filled memorably. Ben Owen-Jones is amusingly brittle as Danny, the cynical coordinator of St. Jude’s Hostel, who views Kate as just another self-absorbed young women wasting her life. Joe Blakemore is a hoot as Army Tom, a hostel regular with an unexpectedly vibrant personality; Ritu Arya and Ansu Kabia also are memorable, as a wary couple who — early on — reluctantly tolerate Kate’s sofa surfing.
Peter Mygind, solemn to the point of hilarity, is fascinating as “The Dane,” a Christmas aficionado enchanted by Santa’s shop (and its owner).
The film’s story actually was inspired by the eponymous George Michael song, which became ubiquitous when recorded by the English pop duo Wham! in December 1984. Thompson’s initial treatment was augmented by co-writer Wise, and shaped further by performance artist Kimmings. The song therefore plays an important role in the film, which also is punctuated by Michael/Wham! songs such as “Too Funky,” “One More Try,” “Everything She Want,” “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and many more.
Actually, the songs occasionally aretooubiquitous, sometimes overshadowing dramatic events and Theodore Shapiro’s underscore.
This film is unashamedly retro; the script and tone come from folks who clearly believe in the transformative power of kindness, love and the holiday spirit. At a time when suspicion, anger and mistrust divide people, Last Christmas is a much-needed uplift: a reminder of how much better the world could be, if we simply were nicer to each other.
And, really: Would that be so difficult?