It’s impossible to watch Last Christmas, the new Universal Pictures film hitting theaters Nov. 8, without comparing it to another British Christmas movie: Love Actually. One of the film’s final scenes, a saccharine holiday talent show at a homeless shelter, appears to be a direct nod to the 2003 romantic comedy, which incidentally also features Emma Thompson in a leading role.
The scene is an almost shot-for-shot homage, with the camera positioned behind Emilia Clarke, scanning the eager audience of friends and family, as she belts the first chorus of “Last Christmas” a capella (just like 10-year-old Joanna does at the school pageant in Love Actually, though her song of choice is Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You”). By the time the familiar Wham! beat drops, you’ll want to dance in the aisles of the movie theater just like Emma Thompson and the homeless Londoners do on screen.
Unfortunately, Last Christmas is unlikely to achieve the holiday classic status of Love Actually, but it is a perfectly enjoyable feel-good movie that will satisfy both lovers of Christmas and of sappy tear-jerking romances, nonetheless.
Games of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke plays Kate, an aspiring actress who works a day job at a Christmas decoration store in London and struggles to get her life back on track after suffering a serious medical emergency. Unwilling to return home to her family, but too self-absorbed and irresponsible to hold onto a roommate, she wanders around in an elf costume, her belongings stuffed into a suitcase, until she meets the elusive and optimistic Tom (Henry Golding). She begins spending her nights exploring the city with him.
Throughout its first half, Last Christmas feels like an unexceptional romantic comedy-meets-tourism ad for London at Christmastime-meets-George Michael music video. The entire soundtrack is mined from the ’80s pop star’s catalogue, including the titular festive Wham! hit. It at once glitters with Christmas cheer and pokes fun at Yuletide commercialism, most often through Kate’s boss (a hilarious, scene-stealing Michelle Yeoh) who goes by the name “Santa” and hawks frivolous products like a sparkling “Christmas Gibbon” that screeches carols.
Directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters) and written by Emma Thompson and her husband, Greg Wise, the film would likely be relegated to the graveyard of forgettable rom-coms if not for an insane plot twist hinging on a very literal interpretation of George Michael’s song lyrics that is either weirdly clever or just plain stupid. I haven’t decided which camp I’m in yet, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that I got a bit misty-eyed during the big reveal.
The narrative begins to feel more layered when we are introduced to Kate’s family. Her parents, played by Emma Thompson and Boris Isakovic, are refugees from former Yugoslavia and her sister is a type-A lawyer named Marta, played by Lydia Leonard doing her best impression of Sian Clifford in Fleabag. The tension between these two generations serve as an access point for the film to talk about Brexit, which honestly felt like the most unexpected thematic twist of all.
In a recent interview with NPR, Emilia Clarke addressed the role of Brexit in the film, explaining, “We’re showing a movie that is now, that is today. And I don’t think Emma or Greg could have written something about London today without mentioning it, without having it.”
The execution, however, does not always do justice to the weight of the subject. Sometimes it is woven seamlessly and believably into the story, as in tense conversations between mother and child when Thompson’s Petra calls her daughter “Katarina” in a distinct Eastern European accent and Clarke’s character exasperatedly corrects her with, “Kate,” in her wholly British brogue. Or when Kate leans forward to hug her taxi driver and we realize he is her father, who was a lawyer in his home country but now drives strangers around the city all night, exhaustion lining the creases of his face. Another scene, though, feels forced and out of place, using a Brexit-fueled display of hate between strangers on a bus as a thinly veiled opportunity to show how much Kate has grown as a character when she steps in to help.
Much of the film feels similarly uneven. At times it can be genuinely funny, like when Kate spars with her Christmas-obsessed boss or when a wide-eyed Thompson attempts to translate vulgar Yugoslav idioms to English. Yet often the jokes fail to land or get bogged down by the seriousness of the plot.
Last Christmas undeniably suffers from trying to do too much—George Michael, life-threatening illness, Brexit, oh my! But considering the disparity between its lofty ambitions and the low stakes of the seasonal romantic comedy genre, it is ultimately an entertaining movie, the kind that is perfect to see with your relatives when you’re home for Thanksgiving.