Warning: minor spoilers ahead
What do critics know anyway? Pretty much every reviewer North of the Alps panned Last Christmas when it first arrived in cinemas in early November, but despite all the negativity, Emma Thompson’s love letter to the rom com has proved a real treat.
It’s not perfect, mind. For one thing, it’s not quite as funny as it thinks it is. Secondly, it lays on the George Michael worship a bit too thick, and thirdly, Thompson wastes herself in an amusing but largely peripheral role.
So, there are certainly bad points, however, these are emphatically outweighed by all the good things going on in the movie.
The first of these good things is a smart script. The story of down on her luck Kate, the perennial singleton who suddenly happens upon her knight in shining armour, might sound like a cliché, but in the telling at least, it turns out to be anything but.
Writer Thompson has taken the tired old rom com format and proceeded to breathe new life into it. I won’t ruin the ending for you, but suffice to say that it will change the way you look at everything that has gone before.
The film also benefits from having a director who implicitly understands that the standard rom com format is, if not exactly dead, then certainly on life support. Paul Feig is primarily known for a string of blockbusters such as 2011’s Bridesmaids; films which turn the conventional romantic comedy formula on its head, replacing it with a much greater emphasis on the female characters in the movie and their personal relationships and growth.
The second of these good things is undoubtedly Emilia Clarke. Clarke imbues her sad pixie Kate with so much energy, warmth, humour and charm that she practically owns the movie. In doing so, she is ably abetted by Henry Golding playing the mysterious stranger Tom.
The two first meet outside the Covent Garden shop in which Kate works. When Emilia Clarke’s character looks up to see what Golding’s Tom is looking at, the ‘rare’ little bird he has spottes takes offence and decides to poop in the shop worker’s eye. Despite this, the pair develop a friendship, albeit one which is periodically disrupted by Golding’s continual disappearances. As Kate’s feelings for the enigmatic bike courier intensify however, she begins to wonder at the reasons behind Tom’s frequent vanishing acts.
The third thing that Last Christmas has going for it is, undoubtedly, heart. The movie has it by the bucket load. In the run up to the movie’s release, Emma Thompson talked of her hope that Last Christmas might come somewhere close to emulating the appeal of perennial Christmas favourite Love Actually. In reality, however, it is Thompson’s movie which makes the earlier film look shallow. Indeed, Last Christmas has a real depth and surprisingly for a rom com, social significance.
Thompson’s movie may look superficially like a standard rom com but infact Last Christmas is as much about family, community, charity and even humanity. It is certainly no accident that the film is set in the year 2016, the year of the referendum on leaving Europe. No accident that the film’s central characters are immigrants. No accident for that matter that Kate’s Mr Right helps out at a homeless charity, or indeed that Kate ends up offering her services there, too.
Yes, Last Christmas is a bigger and bolder movie than it first appears. Wrapped up within the picture’s world view, summed up by Tom’s simple exhortation to Kate to ‘look up’, is a vision of a community which continually seeks to embrace and include, rather than to limit and divide.
It is for this reason that the film’s final scene in the homeless shelter feels so genuinely triumphant. The scene provides a physical manifestation of all the things that Kate (now Katerina) has rediscovered: family, community, charity and humanity. There is a palpable sense of joy in this scene and it is deeper and richer than any of the sentiments expressed in your average rom com.
Indeed, if this writer could sum up the message of Last Christmas in a single sentence it would probably be: “you have a heart – please use it”.