What an absolutely bizarre, melancholy, and sometimes funny little movie. I seem to remember that Last Christmas was largely panned when it came out in 2019, and not without good reasons. (There were also issues with spoilers in the trailer, I think.) When I described the plot to my husband, he was shocked I liked it. Hell, I was shocked I liked it so much. But here’s the thing, exactly how many times do you think you’ll get to watch a Christmas movie that’s adapted from the lyrics of a Wham! song; is about a young woman finding herself after a serious illness; and is written by the Dame Emma Thompson? I’m pretty sure this is your one and only shot. So you’ve either got to take it or leave it. That said, if Wham! and George Michael do not make your little heart go pitter pat, then you might want to skip this movie altogether. Or at least be forewarned that you’re going to have to sit through innumerable renditions of the song “Last Christmas” plus a bevy of his other hits, which I think is absolutely delightful, but my husband, for example, would categorize as a form of Yuletide torture.
We begin in 1999 in Yugoslavia—looking for historical accuracy in these dates or places will only lead to madness, my friend—where young Kate (Madison Ingoldsby) is singing a solo of George Michael’s “Heal the Pain” with a children’s choir. Her mother (Emma Thompson) watches with incredible pride while her sister Marta (Lucy Miller) checks out a girl in the choir and her father (Boris Isakovic) sways to the music. Then the scene changes to London where the family eventually fled to escape the war. The year is now 2017 and Kate (Emilia Clarke) is drunkenly singing the same song in a bar before being approached by a guy who she will end the night by sleeping with. This works out well for Kate, who has just been kicked out by her flatmate and is getting drunk with her suitcase in tow. Then it all goes to shit the next morning when the guy’s girlfriend shows up while Kate’s in the shower and she’s, once again, kicked out. In case it wasn’t clear, Kate’s life is a bit of a mess and it’s mostly a mess of her own making. She heads off to work at Yuletide, a year-round Christmas store run by a woman who Kate only knows as Santa (Michelle Yeoh). Kate’s dream is to become a singer, but while she’s auditioning for shows she works full-time at the store. The narrow store is so packed from top to bottom with fragile ornaments and other Christmas tchotchkes that I wavered between awe and panic during the scenes that take place there.
Kate’s uniform is an elf costume, and it’s what she wears for almost the entire movie. Odd? Sure, but if anyone can pull off a green elf costume and still look adorable, it’s Emilia Clarke. While helping a customer (Patti Lupone) decide between two equally horrifying baby Jesuses (Jesusi?), Kate is interrupted by her sister Marta (Lydia Leonard) who is insistent that they speak immediately. I was at first appalled that anyone would have the audacity to interrupt THE Patti Lupone before I remembered she was playing a character. But still. Anyway, once outside, Marta scolds Kate, or Katarina as she (and everyone else in their family calls her), for missing five (FIVE!) doctor’s appointments and ignoring their mother’s many, many phone calls. Kate tries, unsuccessfully, to turn it around and ask Marta about whether she’ll be telling their parents about her girlfriend Alba (Jade Anouka). Back in the store Santa berates Kate for being lazy and a waste of payroll, but she does it in such a way that you know she loves Kate dearly and just desperately wants the woman to get her shit together.
Side note: Are there really only two people working in this bustling Christmas store? Even at the height of the Christmas season? Or are the other employees always just out of frame?
While trying to appear busy by dusting the multitude of ornaments in the shop window, Kate spies a very attractive man (Henry Golding) walking in circles and looking up. She goes outside to ask him what he’s doing and he points out a Peregrine Falcon sitting on the lip of the roof. He explains how rare it is to see one in the city. She is momentarily impressed until the bird shits directly into her eye. An auspicious beginning to any relationship, and definitely a new spin on a meet-cute. The guy follows her into the shop to talk about how being pooped on by a bird is good luck and to invite Kate on a walk. She demurs. And by demurs I mean she tells him he’s weird and shoos him out of the shop. I don’t mean to be all superficial, but this woman just went home and played hide the sausage with some rando from a bar and SHE’S SHOOING HENRY GOLDING OUT OF HER SHOP FOR ASKING HER ON A WALK?!? Make it make sense.
This is the moment when a whole other movie begins mid-movie in this movie, and I don’t hate it. A very tall man (Peter Mygind) walks into the store. From the moment he enters he only has eyes for Santa, who is standing behind the register, absorbed in some tabulations. When he is standing directly in front of her he says, “Good evening.” She begins to respond, but as she catches sight of him her words are lost in a gasp. They have a fairly nonsensical conversation about Christmas ornaments that involves a red sparkly gibbon that sings—you guessed it—“Last Christmas.” As they ostensibly talk about mundane Christmas ornaments, they stare at each other, their eyes filled with longing, their voices laden with deeper meaning. When he leaves, Kate says that it was like, “watching a short Scandinavian film.” She’s not wrong. And don’t worry, the man will return.
But, back to the original movie where Kate goes to an audition where she screws things up, but then she runs into the bird poop guy again whose name turns out to be Tom. They go for a walk where he shows her small parts of the city she’s never seen, gives her an opportunity to connect with other people, and keeps telling her to look up so that she’ll see new things. Not for nothing, but this whole look up thing seems to be a really bad idea. I mean, sure she sees some new things, but she also gets poop in her eye and falls directly onto a whole pile of garbage bags. And it doesn’t always seem to work out so well for Tom either. So not all advice from handsome strangers is worth taking. Tom is, generally speaking, a very odd guy, who has never heard of Frozen, insists he has to keep his phone in a cupboard, and only shows up according to his own schedule. But he is also the only one who really seems to see Kate and understand her current confused state. Or better said, he’s the only one she feels whole around in her current confused state. When she was sick she felt somehow special, and now that she’s well, she’s now exactly sure how to move forward with her life. She doesn’t understand what life is supposed to look or feel like for her anymore. And it’s true, you know, when people are really sick and then they get better, so often the response of doctors and society is just, Great! You must be so happy! Go forth and be! But nothing is that simple. It’s not easy to go from being well to being sick, and it’s not simple to go from being sick and not knowing if you’ll live to suddenly being completely cured and expected to rejoin the land of the healthy as if nothing has happened.
The movie’s flaws aside, I like that it’s willing to live in that space between. That it’s willing to let its main character thrash about as she tries to find her footing in this new world of health. That it’s willing to have the answers live inside the uncertainty. Is it strange and a little too on the nose that it gets there by her saying words that so closely echo the Wham! lyrics? Maybe, but, whatever, I kind of love its open display of cheesiness. Sometimes you’ve just gotta have faith in the process, you know?
Obviously, I can’t tell you much more about how things work out. Except I can say that the twist at the end made me yowl with such frustration that both my cats came to check on me. I mean, Henry Golding’s Genetically Blessed face can only carry us so far when it comes to credulity. Unfortunately for me, I was already too smitten with the movie to bail, so here I am writing this review even though, and I want to reiterate this, I cannot stand this particular kind of twist ending. I don’t know, folks, sometimes we like things even though we truly hate big parts of them. Life is an enigma. Humans are complicated. Emma Thompson leans so hard into her accent that I sometimes wondered if she wrote the entire movie just so she could say “drink like a pirate” and shout the word “dick” repeatedly. There are several overt mentions of Brexit and many smaller scenes that make it clear that the filmmakers believe that immigrants add to the richness of a city like London. It was an unexpected bonus in a film that could have easily ignored all of that.
Look, I can see all the reasons why people wouldn’t like this movie. I generally write reviews espousing the reasons why people wouldn’t like this movie. I can see why they would scoff at it. I can see why they would laugh at it. I can see all the places they would poke holes in the plot. Or the places they would question the logic. But we all have areas where we’re willing to suspend all our disbelief—and maybe some of our taste—because something just appeals to us on a base level. This story of a somewhat peculiar young woman finding her way back to herself by connecting with other people and with George Michael’s musical canon was that for me. I make zero promises about it being the same for you.