The George Michael song Last Christmas has become an institution of its own, and few festive compilation albums are released without it. It’s also the title – and motivation – of a new British comedy from director Paul Feig, starring Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding and Emma Thompson.
Written by Thompson and her husband Greg Wise, the story follows Kate (Clarke), a young woman whose life is a series of drunken encounters, thoughtless decisions and bad luck. She works in a Christmas-themed department store owned by a woman named Santa (Michelle Yeoh) and one day a tall handsome stranger named Tom (Golding) enters her life and sets in motion a series of encounters that will – hopefully – get her back on the straight and narrow.
It is a straightforward premise that’s filled to the brim with delight. Last Christmas harks back to the type of rom-coms from the early ‘00s – such as Serendipity, Return to Me and Keeping the Faith – and it has particular reverence for the likes of Bridget Jones’s Diary and Love Actually. For anyone who’s a natural born sucker for yuletide movies (like this writer), it will be all too easy to fall for Last Christmas.
Feig has spent the last few years distancing himself from the debacle that was Ghostbusters with the unexpectedly sinister thriller A Simple Favor (2018), and now a class of comedy that is far removed from the brand he had established with Bridesmaids and Spy. Taking a less gratuitous direction, Last Christmas has the sweet sensibilities of Notting Hill, rather than the vulgarity of The Heat, and is a welcome distinction from his American productions. He presents his British story with tact and allows his characters to set their own pace, and with the help of his lead actors, delivers an endearing film with substance and integrity.
Clarke is terrific as Kate, and solidifies her position as one of Hollywood’s most appealing figures. From her kick-ass turns in Solo and Game of Thrones, to refined performances like this one and Me Before You, her versatility is impressive and her presence always appealing. Henry Golding backs up his role in Crazy Rich Asians with this second Feig collaboration (following A Simple Favor) and polarises the screen with the calibre of charisma and charm that was once reserved for titans like Cary Grant and Robert Redford. Their chemistry is strong and propels the story beyond whatever frailties the script might have.
And then there’s George. Unlike recent artist-focused, music-infused films like Blinded by the Light and Yesterday, Last Christmas simply uses George Michael’s music as its soundtrack. No particular song determines the narrative, nor are they fused with character motivations, and with the film’s warmth and infectious spirit, his music is represented beautifully and never garishly.
Christmas movies arrive every season without fail, but rarely do they stick. Last Christmas, however, hits most of its marks with precision and is poised to become an annual festive favourite.
In cinemas: November 7, 2019
Starring: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson
Directed by: Paul Feig