By Jaclyn Heng
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Here’s hoping that everyone is busy making great memories – whether it is spending quality time with family, going for a night out with friends, or simply relaxing at home and Netflix-ing cliche Christmas movies.
I have to admit, I’m an absolute sucker for sentimental romantic movies. So when the trailer for Last Christmas dropped, it seemed like the ultimate holiday feel-good film that ought not to be missed. A Christmas romantic comedy… starring the gorgeous Henry Golding and adorable Emilia Clarke (yum)… topped off with the legendary Emma Thompson and our very own Michelle Yeoh. It sounded like the perfect, star-studded christmas dessert and it definitely had the potential to be one. Especially since Emma Thompson herself co-wrote the storyline with her husband. But did the movie pull through?
Major spoilers below for Last Christmas. Do not proceed if you have not watched the movie.
As a brief rundown of the plot, Emilia Clarke plays a cynic, Kate, who works at a year-long Christmas store and was teetering on the edge of life a year before as a result of a failing heart. Kate engages in self-destructive behavior, isolating herself from her Yugoslavian family who came to London as war refugees, having sex with every other man she meets while drinking herself into oblivion, and ignoring doctor’s appointments. Cue the entrance of charming Tom (Golding), a bicycle deliveryman who volunteers at the local homeless shelter. Tom leads Kate around London and teaches her to “look up” to notice things she would have never paid attention to before. Kate begins to fall in love with Tom, but frequently gets frustrated when she is unable to contact him (since he locked his phone in a cupboard). With Tom’s influence, she begins to turn her life around and takes charge of her own behavior, repenting to her previous flatmates and devoting herself to helping others. When she goes looking for Tom once again, Kate comes across a startling discovery. Tom was never there. He died a year ago in an accident. Kate realizes her transplanted heart used to be Tom’s.
After leaving the cinema post-Last Christmas, I felt just as I expected to feel: warm and fuzzy inside, with my cheeks tear-stained (I get emotionally invested in movies, okay?). The skating scene was absolutely adorable. From a surface-level impression, I really liked the movie and overall thoroughly enjoyed it. However, from a more critical perspective, there were definitely some aspects that could have been better executed. I had gone into the cinema knowing that Last Christmas had received some biting reviews from film critics, so even though I enjoyed it, I could see where these critics were coming from.
Wouldn’t we all love to meet a handsome, mysterious stranger in the streets of London?
#1 The Plot Twist
When it is revealed that all Kate’s previous romantic encounters with Tom was only a figment of her imagination, I was honestly shocked. I had expected a cutesy Christmas romance between the two main leads and did not see a twist coming. It was something different and I reveled in how satisfying it was when the pieces started falling into place, like how no one at the homeless shelter knew Tom even though he claimed to volunteer there. I just wish that the plot twist had come earlier in the story. It felt like the storyline from there on out was rushed, leaving the audience unable to fully process the twist. Shown through flashes of both Tom and Kate’s memories of the hospital, it jumped too quickly to the resolution before viewers could let the whole idea of a “Christmas ghost” sink in. Could that have been why Tom kept telling Kate to “look up”? To look up and figuratively see him as some form of an angel? Because “look up” just doesn’t seem to cut it as a profound catchphrase for the mysterious Tom.
#2 Current Issues
Last Christmas was the first rom-com I’ve seen incorporate current world issues into the storyline. Incorporation of issues such as Brexit, trauma and depression from war, refugees and same-sex relationships in the plot was commendable as such things are rarely mentioned in the entertainment side of media. The problem was that Last Christmas tried too hard to touch on so many topics that none were properly developed to make a lasting impression. Everything was just touch-and-go, as if for the sake of just mentioning it. A+ for “wokeness”, but they tried.
#3 Character Depth
I have to be honest, I was really looking forward to watching Emma Thompson and Michelle Yeoh’s characters. However, most characters in the movie were just static and flat with the sole exception of Kate. Kate’s mother (Thompson) was simply portrayed as a concerned-mother who suffered from depression following the war that her family escaped from. There was so much potential to develop Thompson’s character’s complexity from her experience in the war, her influence in Kate’s sister, Marta’s career as a lawyer, or even from her concern for Kate, which Kate herself describes as her mother enjoying the attention from her illness. “Santa” (Michelle Yeoh) also had the potential to be an interesting character. Details like why she owned a year-long Christmas store and why she showed such concern for Kate’s change in behavior after the operation were unfortunately not acknowledged. There was so much more story to develop that couldn’t be satisfactorily encompassed in a character’s passing remark or a casual one-line of dialogue as the movie had attempted.
#4 Secondary Plots (or Secondary Characters)
Last Christmas may have been a little too ambitious in their efforts to enrich the storyline. The entire film comprised of several subplots on the side of the main plot. The major example could be the war Kate and her family escaped from. We as the audience know nothing about what happened in Kate’s childhood other than the fact that there was a war and they escaped as immigrants to London. The lack of details left the plot one-dimensional as the audience couldn’t immerse themselves into the emotions and fears of the characters. In the opening scene, Kate is shown singing in a choir and obviously, from her position, she’s the main star. Cut to current day and that scene only served to show the audience “yeah, she can sing”, maybe going so far as to show the close familial bond they used to have through her parents and sister’s expressions. As an adult, she briefly expresses a love for George Michael songs, but that interest as well was underdeveloped and never shows why she would relate her love for singing to George Michael. Kate’s mother’s struggle with depression was also only discussed in passing. It was implied that her struggles affected the way she interacted with the family and was why her husband didn’t want to be home and around her. Again, everything was very surface-level, leaving a lot of potential depth to the story hanging and unfinished. Lastly was the sudden romance between “Santa” and “Boy”. I really don’t know where that came from. It did nothing to serve the plot development and was introduced so suddenly as if simply for the sake of adding an extra romance (minus any chemistry) and maybe just to show a softer side of the stern “Santa”. Plenty of other secondary characters were introduced… but that was it. Namely the people at the homeless shelter, especially the two people (Daniel and Unnamed) Kate worked with for the Christmas Concert. There were simply way too many characters involved and the audience were given little backstory and no development.
#5 Cultural Incorporation
This aspect of the movie was really a 50/50 for me. I enjoyed how the main lead had something different to her origin story, coming from a different culture and living as refugees before getting back on their feet. The scene where she reassures a Croatian couple was, for me, one of the little highlights where Kate showed a soft side and really displayed a connection through their shared language. The little moments where they speak in their own language when together as a family or lapse in between languages when arguing provided more layering to the characters. While I can’t comment much on the incorporation on Yugoslavian culture and the accuracy of its portrayal in Last Christmas, I did notice certain aspects about the incorporation of Chinese culture through “Santa”. Kate’s line where she says “Santa” was able to find many weird objects because she’s Chinese definitely would have raised some eyebrows with a generalization of that sort. Another instance is when “Santa” reveals that that is not her real name (well, duh), and that she changes her name with every new place she works at, relevant to the type of merchandise they sell. This could hit a few sensitivities, especially with the growing awareness of the need to hold non-Asians accountable to learn how to pronounce Asian names correctly and respectfully.
Last Christmas was written based on the Christmas carol of the same name. But only after watching the movie did I realise that there was more to it. “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart…” because…… Tom literally and figuratively gave Kate his heart, hence the events of the entire film *mindblown noises*. Their romantic escapades to the quaint garden and ice-rink had me squealing inside and feeling a whole lot more single. It was heartwarming to watch Kate’s ups and downs with her family, friends, and most importantly, with herself.
I did not expect to have criticisms for this movie, but I would say that it’s definitely worth the watch. Henry Golding is a major heartthrob in this movie so that is a plus. Just abandon your analytical, critical minds for 105 minutes and enjoy the feel-good vibes of a neither very romantic nor very comedic Christmas rom-com, but a lovely movie nonetheless. (I say this as I am booking my tickets to watch it for the second time and realising that I will never listen to Last Christmas the same way again.)