Image courtesy of the Telegraph Online
Every year there are a select number of films that reignite the age-old battle between critics (professional and armchair), and casual viewers. The fact is, that there are always as many different opinions on any given movie as there are people who saw it. Yes, some of us devote ourselves to refining out skills at expressing those opinions in an entertaining and enlightening way (and yes, critics are increasingly these days entertainers themselves) and in the process we watch a lot more movies of different types and get inured to the charms of certain clichés and sensitive to finer points of filmmaking that more casual moviegoers might overlook. This can often lead to critics seeming out of touch with the way most viewers actually experience films but as an aspiring and practicing critic myself, I try my best to provide my own opinion as undiluted as possible. It also happens to bring me a certain amount of glee as my idiosyncratic opinions get people staring at me (I cackled maniacally as The Dark Knight was knocked out of my 2008 Top 10 by Mamma Mia!). At the end of the day, it’s all just music and something vibes with you or it doesn’t, but that’s no excuse to come up empty-handed when asked to explain why.
The most recent sower of critic-paying customer disharmony is Last Christmas, a festive offering from the pen of national treasure and BAFTA’s fun aunt Emma Thompson, brought to our screens by the directorship of Ghostbusters: Answer the Call auteur and saviour of modern feminism Paul Feig. The film stars Game of Thrones’ former most badass thing on TV Emelia Clarke, as ditzy young 20-something Kate, and the no less dishy Crazy Rich Asians and Feig’s A Simple Favour alum Henry Golding as her boyfriend-cum-life- coach Tom. The film immediately raised critical eyebrows with its saccharine Richard Curtis-isms, outrageous accents and laughably literal interpretation of George Michael lyrics, resulting in a critical consensus of all thumbs down and many declaring it among the year’s worst.
So, going into a free screening expecting at best something to laugh at rather than with, an instructional guide on how not to make a movie and a space filler on my list of the Top 10 Worst Movies of 2019, I was a little taken aback to find myself walking out thinking: “THAT’s the movie everyone hates?”
Don’t get me wrong, I see where that position comes from, this film has flaws and it doesn’t take a seasoned professional to spot them. Feig is a decidedly mediocre director, often turning out underwritten and choppily edited messes like A Simple Favour and the aforementioned franchise necromancy, and the songs suck. Sorry, but it’s true. They’re also badly mixed as well. Whoever did the sound levels for this movie put the songs WAY too high, blaring out a dozen or so decibels higher than the dialogue and instrumental score. It’s also not a musical, whatever anyone has told you. There are a couple of nods to the songs in the dialogue, they play in the background and a big singalong rendition of the title track at the end. That’s not a musical, that’s a normal Christmas movie, with an unusually specific theme. There are also some clunkers in the dialogue and one or two very awkward scenes of forced comedy, especially early on.
And of course, there’s the big jaw-dropper. The film’s very literal adaptation of the line “last Christmas, I gave you my heart”, yes, the joke everyone has made about the song being about a heart transplant is what this movie runs with. There is a big twist but honestly, it’s so familiar that it didn’t bother me because it barely even counts as a twist anymore, it’s so obvious. Nonetheless, principle prevents me from giving it away in a review, but I guessed it myself ten seconds into the trailer, so I doubt you’ll be far behind. That thing you’re thinking - yeah, it’s probably that.
However, it’s actually pretty easy to overlook those flaws when the rest of the confection is so sweetly winning. One thing Feig has always excelled at is coaxing friendly performances from his casts and this might be his best effort in that regard. Clarke and Golding are each an absolute delight, have wonderful chemistry and are deliciously sexy. Despite her broad accent Thompson as Kate’s Yugoslavian mother as usual gives 100%, getting some of the film’s most solid laughs.
But it’s Thompson’s work as a screenwriter that really elevates the film, and yes, I am about to praise the script to Last Christmas. The film’s central character arc revolving around Kate dealing with moving on with her life after surviving a life-threatening illness are very original and undemonstratively and compassionately handled. Clarke herself went through multiple brain haemorrhages between 2011 and 2013 and her personal experience is brought to bear on her performance bringing it into an intimate relief that made it feel, I’ll say it, real. Her experience of surviving a near-death experience and yet feeling no different, having no epiphany or sense of insight, just being another messed up 20-something with no sense of direction, was one I don’t think I’ve ever seen portrayed on film and I for one bought into it.
A similar sense of authority comes from the detailed subplots woven into the story. As the film goes on, the initial awkwardness subsides, many of the minor characters reveal engaging complexities and the film gets a lot more natural and likeable. It touches on Brexit, Homelessness and LGBTQ+ issues in a way that keeps walking right up to the line of forced and cringey, but for my tastes never overstepped it. The people still felt real to me. Or at least, they felt like they were coming from a real place and real emotions.
I even liked the twist, like the twist to Switchblade Romance as silly and predictable as it is, it made the movie mean something more interesting. It’s not just an average holiday rom-com any more and it’s actually about the character growing, taking charge of her life and becoming a better person by contributing to her community. That’s not just something she does to “win the guy”, it’s something she does for herself.
I’m not saying this movie is for everyone, I doubt the average Bergman fan will take much away from it, but I skipped away from the cinema. For all it’s problems, it does absolutely nothing to incur any amount of bad will. It’s intensely endearing. I don’t like the phrase ‘guilty pleasure’ as I believe that if a movie ‘works’ for you then there’s always a reason why, and I hope that the defence of this movie I’ve mounted goes some way to prove that;, but if ever a film merited addition to the rotation of festive guilty pleasures alongside fruitcake, marzipan and custard, then it’s this. It’s just a good thing that no movie was ever fattening, no matter how sweet it is.