Last Christmas is the big entry in the 2019 festive movie stakes; the twinkling eyes of the stars stare out from bus shelters and intrusive online ads, promising early holiday-season cheer and hoping to generate positive word of mouth, but the reality of Paul Feig’s gift-wrapped product is rather different from the simple feel-good fare that might have been anticipated. With a story and script credit, plus a central performance all from Emma Thompson, it’s a film that will attract interest by virtue of heavy marketing, but plays considerably worse with audiences than the film-makers might have hoped.
Spoilers are required here, although the much discussed ‘twist’ of Last Christmas is in the trailer and shouldn’t be much of surprise to anyone. In the words of the George Michael song ‘Last Christmas, I gave you my heart…’ Someone, somewhere, presumably Thompson thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great if that meant actually donating a heart?’ because this absurdly literal reading of the song is the crux of matters here. Emelia Clarke plays Kate, a young woman working as an elf in a grotto run by Santa (Michelle Yeoh). Kate is a sexually active young woman, so, of course, there must be something wrong with her, and we get early dialogue clues that she’s been ‘sick’ and required a heart transplant, which is quite ‘sick’ in most people’s books. She’s obsessed with George Michael, and his songs play over her activities in ways that defy logic ; ‘Everything She Wants’ as she eats a burger alone on a bench, or an innocuous ice-skating practice is accompanied by Michael warbling portentously about “God not keeping score.’ It’s all a selling point, presumably. Do you miss George Michael? Then surely you’ll want to hear George Michael’s music reduced to an anonymous temp score that doesn’t fit the action at all?
Kate begins a relationship with a mysterious stranger called Tom (Henry Goulding) who may or may not be connected to her heart transplant; is he a doctor? An angel? Whatever he is, we can tell Tom is a good man because he works in a homeless shelter and doesn’t want to sleep with her. Tom is here to tell Kate how to live her life, and excuse my sarcasm here, that’s obviously what most women badly need, a man to tell them exactly how they should behave, so Kate quickly falls for him.
Tom wants Kate to live her life to the full, and that means reconciling with her Croatian mother, played by Emma Thompson because there are literally no Croatian women who could have played this role. We see Thompson watching Brexit news on television and screaming ‘It’s because they hate us’, a scene that might have had some political resonance if Thompson wasn’t so clearly a super-affluent Hampstead home-owner and hardly qualified to speak for the average Croatian. If people like Thompson ever shut up, Croatians might, one day, get the chance to speak for themselves. This kind of ethnic insensitivity is 2019’s version of blackface, an all-singing, all-stereotyped shrill caricature that is slowly being eradicated from cinema but not fast enough to save this silly yet depressing film.
It’s hard to know what to say about a film that hears ‘Last Christmas, I gave you my heart…’ and constructs a drama about heart transplants. How about Don’t Stop Believing?, a Paul Schrader drama about a religious pastor who faces a crisis of confidence? Or I Left My Heart in San Francisco, with Nicolas Cage as a hospital intern who forgets a vital organ on a trip to the Bay area? Such conceits work as jokes, and jokes only; they reduce the meaning of the song to absurdity, and that’s exactly what Last Christmas does. The rom here isn’t romantic at all, and the com is non-existent; a throwaway line about ‘lesbian pudding’ is the one single moment that raised a laugh at my screening. Similarly, there’s some beyond limp cameos from the likes of Sue Perkins, and even the great Peter Serafinowicz looks mortified as he offers up his Christmas cracker ‘elf and safety’ joke and shuffles off.
With an underwhelming musical number as a climax, Last Christmas is a blot on the resumes of all concerned; like The Holiday, it’s a festive ghost that will haunt and diminish the stars, returning every year to remind us of their desperation to grab audience’s cash from them. Clarke has noted that she won’t be reading the reviews for this one, presumably with the notion that if she doesn’t know that people hate this film, then that hatred isn’t happening. If she ever changes her mind, she should know that the audience, baited, switched and heading for the exists before the credits started to roll, were happy to escape the living nightmare that Last Christmas becomes.