Emilia Clarke stars in Last Christmas, a sweet but contrived comedy from director Paul Feig, along with screenwriters Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings. Like a beautifully-decorated Christmas cookie in the window of a bakery, Last Christmas is lovely to look at, but doesn’t actually taste like much.
Kate (Clarke) is a self-proclaimed “mess,” bouncing around London and sleeping on friends’ couches. Hoping to reinvent herself as a singer, she changes her name from Katarina in order to separate herself from family baggage and a past illness. But with strings of failed auditions, random hookups, and no real place to live, she feels stuck in her dead-end job as an elf at a year-round Christmas store owned by Michelle Yeoh’s “Santa”—a comedic highlight of Last Christmas.
Enter Tom Webster (Henry Golding), a handsome and mysterious do-gooder who encourages Kate to “look up,” to get her life in order and to be kinder to others. He inspires her to make better choices, and she gradually gets into the holiday spirit of giving while dealing with her own family conflicts.
The photography is gorgeous, bringing London to life at Christmastime. Cinematographer John Schwartzman also worked on Feig’s A Simple Favor, plus Saving Mr. Banks, Seabiscuit and The Rookie. As a result, Last Christmas is beautiful, save for its cluttered and unnecessarily complicated plot. Storylines involving Kate’s overbearing mother (Thompson), complicated relationships with her sister and friends, plus little nods to Brexit and British immigration politics make the story feel as overstuffed and unsteady as Kate’s life. It’s surprising considering Thompson’s track record of writing Sense & Sensibility, Nanny McPhee and Bridget Jones’s Baby.
The best aspect of Last Christmas is its underlying message of goodness and giving. Ultimately, it’s about Kate figuring out the meaning of life and Christmas. But what could have been an admirable examination of life after overcoming illness and answering life’s big questions ends up feeling like a lost opportunity. Its loving message is executed sweetly, but it gets buried underneath other plot lines concerning her sister, mother, and love interest. Clarke has proven her versatility with her most notable roles in wildly popular franchises—Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones and optimistic Lou Clark in Me Before You being two to remember. She is the biggest draw of Last Christmas, disappearing into Kate’s messy life and making her journey believable. Golding is equally compelling, but he ducks in and out of Kate’s life in frustrating fashion, making the film’s third act feel forced.
The underlying story of Last Christmas seems incredibly predictable from the marketing alone—but there were several people in my screening room who were visibly moved by the progression of the plot. Maybe Clark Griswold was right when he said Christmas “means something different to everybody,” in my favorite holiday flick.
Last Christmas is visually gorgeous, well-meaning, and well-acted. But its story falls short, at times feeling as messy and cluttered as Santa’s Christmas shop—a cozy place to be, but not for long. Part comedy, part family drama, part romantic Christmas film, Thompson and Kimmings admirably strove to tell a unique story. But there are just too many glittering ornaments on this tree, weighing it down with plot instead of heart.