Last Christmas (PG)
A long time ago, I swore I wouldn't mention the word "Christmas" until at least the first day of December was on the scoreboard. My sincere apologies, because November is only just in double figures and here we are! Getting out nice and early for the season - and probably to be well and truly forgotten before you've ordered the turkey - is Last Christmas, an Emma Thompson-inspired movie that tries hard to capture the wholesome, multicultural, politically-correct side of the season to be jolly. It's a shiny bauble of a romcom, with some cute moments, mainly thanks to the irrepressibly cheerful Emilia Clarke. But it's easily forgettable and highly contrived, the music of George Michael never used strongly enough to make the film soar. And the budget for fairy lights must have been monstrous.
Clarke plays Kate, a London girl who's clearly lost. She eats badly, works with a forced cheeriness as an elf in a Christmas shop run by "Santa" (Michelle Yeoh), and has always wanted to sing. She's also a bit of a selfish klutz, fast running out of couch-surfing friends because of a rather anti-social habit of breaking precious objects or killing pets. In need of somewhere to live, she returns home to her dysfunctional Yugoslavian parents, her mother Petra (Emma Thompson) still living in the Slavic past and her father Ivan (Boris Isakovic) driving a cab at nights despite being a lawyer. Constantly chiding her about being a bad daughter is her elder sister Marta (Lydia Leonard). As you can tell, the homecoming is very much a last resort.
But then Kate bumps into the mysterious Tom (Henry Golding), a supreme charmer who dances through the night-life of London (spot the fairy lights), enchanting Kate away from her woes before disappearing again. He's everything your date should be: handsome, caring, and without a mobile phone. As he shows Kate how to think about others and see the world differently ("look up" is his frequent cry), their feelings grow, but his mystery deepens.
The movie seems like it has everything: a script from Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson (who has some serious screenwriting credits including Nanny McPhee and Sense & Sensibility) and, as director, Paul Feig who made Bridesmaids. Clarke is still burning hot from Game of Thrones and Golding a runaway star after Crazy, Rich Asians. Add the music of one of the great legends of the '90s, all those fairy lights, and what could go wrong?
Well, you can just try too hard. In between the occasionally snappy, occasionally funny exchange of dialogue, the movie pushes its message of multi-cultural goodwill to the max. Thompson is on the record as saying that she was interested in trying to position the Christmas story like tale from Dickensian London: the spirit of communal generosity foregrounded. Feig definitely makes the most of London, taking us on several beautiful night-time tours, markets full of people and produce from all over the world. Much of the second half of the film plays out at a homeless centre where Tom works as a volunteer, and where goodwill and a nice cuppa is the currency. We get the message, only to have it amplified with a couple of unnecessary and badly written scenes: a white yobbo telling foreigners on the bus to go home, and TV references to refugees.
Clarke and Golding show some initial spark as the romantic duo, she wearing her heart on her elf-suit sleeve and he the reticent smouldering type. But there's something missing: and the reasons why only become obvious later as we head for the big Christmas number at the homeless shelter. Much more fun than the central relationship is Clarke's rapport with her boss, Michelle Yeoh in excellent form.
As for the music, well, after the opening - when we get some hilarious snippets of versions of the title song - George Michael's music seems wasted. He gave the film his blessing before he died, and with such a great back catalogue, I was expecting the music to be more neatly integrated into the story and more of it: no 'Careless Whispers' for example! Ah well, for fans the compensation is that the movie closes with a song of his that's never been heard before: 'This Is How (We Want You To Get High)'.