Wham's 1984 hit, Last Christmas, is arguably the best Christmas song. The song's synth-heavy intro, in part, laid the foundation for the majority of 1980s pop singles. You're unlikely to come across anyone who doesn't at least know the lyrics of the chorus off by heart, either. George Michael was the sole songwriter for the track, as he was for most of Wham's recordings.
After Michael's untimely passing in 2016, much of the singer's formerly private life became known. Not in a scandalous way, either. George Michael had donated substantial amounts of money to various charities while also vocally supporting many other causes throughout his life.
After a communal reappraisal of his work, Michael has become more respected now than he was during his later years. With his post-death resurgence and the long-lasting impact of Last Christmas, it would seem like the ideal time to create something to salute his legacy.
Last Christmas, the 2019 film starring Emila Clarke and Henry Golding, is based loosely on the lyrics of Wham's track, with a storyline written by Emma Thompson and her husband, Greg Wise. Notably, the film was directed by Paul Feig.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Kate, played by Clarke, is a retail assistant for a Christmas store in London's Covent Garden. However, she aspires to be a singer and performer. Despite those ambitions, she has little drive, preferring to pass the days drinking, hooking up, and barely scraping through the day. Her relationship with her family, her mother, in particular, is strained. In the opening moments of the film, her sister berates her for failing to stay in touch.
Early on, we find out that this behaviour is relatively recent. Kate was severely ill and in the hospital the year before and has been unable to cope with the emotions of being left alone after she was 'better' and having confronted her mortality.
It's a reasonably predictable setup found in most mid-range rom-coms. Unsurprisingly, a kind, caring, sympathetic man, in this case, Tom Webster, played by Golding, turns up and helps her to turn her life around. The familiarity with the film's beat isn't in itself an issue; there are plenty of passable, even enjoyable, movies that follow a template. The problems arise, though, in the writing quality and the emotional dividing line towards the end of the film.
Clarke and Golding work well together. It's unfortunate that, outside Game of Thrones, Clarke has been, mostly, associated with dead-end releases through no fault of her own. Last Christmas doesn't change this trend, but it does allow her more space to inhabit the character and, importantly, break from the GoT-inflicted typecasting. Golding is believable as the too-good-to-be-true romantic interest.
However, the scenarios the two find themselves in are, at best, boring. At worst, they fall into the poorest of the mid-2000s rom-com traps, seemingly stuck in another era. This would be unremarkable (after all, there are hundreds of these types of films) if it weren't for the writing credits. Emma Thompson is an incredible actress who has made her name by taking on strong female roles, often aiming at patriarchal structures, as in Late Night.
To see her script fall back on tired stereotypes and regressive roles is surprising. That said, she and Wise have taken quite a few cues from Michael's music, which is interwoven throughout the film and from the singer's charitable sensibility. For instance, Kate finds redemption by volunteering at a homeless shelter in central London and is even inspired to mend her broken family relationships.
These, though, are all fairly rote rom-com-isms. After Tom goes AWOL late in the film, Kate heads to his flat to find him. Instead of Tom, she's greeted by an estate agent who informs her that not only is the flat for sale but that the owner died a year previously. Tom, as it turns out, had been dead all along. We then see a montage of Kate heading to the hospital, Tom getting hit by a vehicle and his organ donation card.
The surgery resulted in Kate receiving his heart. In spirit form, Tom had been helping Kate regain her sense of self and find contentment. Written down in a review like this, it seems frankly a bit silly. But, actually, the film manages just about to make it work. The main trouble is that the rest of the movie never put in the emotional legwork to justify this moment.
Last Christmas is an inconsistent holiday movie, split into two parts. It's both a throwaway film and also an attempt to highlight the power of charity, empathy, and finding meaning in your life. The rom-com portion, deservedly, earned Last Christmas a critical panning upon release.
By the time you reach the end, you find yourself wishing that the sentiment, and plot, had been reconfigured into something more relatable. There's a good core, hidden deep inside an otherwise lacklustre Christmas movie.