Emilia Clarke gives a top-shelf performance in Last Christmas, a holiday movie about a young woman’s struggles with her dysfunctional immigrant family and the lasting psychological effects of a life-changing surgery a year earlier. Unfortunately, too many plot holes create an uneven story that will strain credibility even for very forgiving Christmas movie fans.
Clarke plays Kate, the daughter of a family who migrated to London to escape the bloodshed triggered by the break-up of Communist Yugoslavia (in the 1990s). Unable to find work as an attorney, her father now drives a cab in London to support his family while the matriarch (played by Emma Thompson who co-wrote the screenplay) presses her daughters to be successful in their adopted homeland. Kate (and her sister) struggles with her Yugoslav family ethnicity and the demands of her hard-driving mother.
Kate is not handling the pressure well. She continually slips into destructive personal behavior, including drinking, casual sex, and carelessness that (humorously) results in the killing of a Lionfish, a friend’s model of a wooden sailing ship, and other assorted minor personal catastrophes. Eventually, she is cast out by her friends and forced to move home.
Along the way, Kate meets Tom (Henry Golding), a mysterious but apparently happy-go-lucky type of guy. He is smitten by Kate, and he encourages her to appreciate the unappreciated, like well-kept hidden alleys and urban gardens tucked away behind houses. He admonishes her to “look up” and take note of the little things of wonder all around her, such as birds nesting in the awnings of shops. Predictably, Tom begins to wear down Kate’s cynicism.
As Kate struggles to find her way, she works as an elf in a London Christmas store owned and operated by a Chinese woman (Michelle Yeoh) nicknamed “Santa.” The banter between Santa and Kate is entertaining, while the setting adds an element of magical realism that helps excuse obvious plot points and a few implausible plot twists. This is a Christmas movie, after all.
Gradually, Kate begins to cope with her own demons and begins to make amends with those she has wronged. She begins to grapple with the real trauma underlying her surgery. Her work at a homeless shelter becomes an important vehicle for this transformation as she begins to understand the joy of helping others. As we might expect, Kate eventually finds her way, but not without real heartache that shakes her to the core.
Last Christmas has many moments of humor and poignance. The scenes where Kate confronts the real trauma created by her surgery are particularly heart wrenching. Clarke’s performance in this scene is particularly gripping. Clarke, Golding, and Yeoh also have real chemistry on screen, and this helps save the film. Unfortunately, it’s not quite enough to take it to the level their performances warrant. Nevertheless, the core message, that we fulfill ourselves by doing good for others, is the truth that becomes the glue that holds this story together.
Overall, I found Last Christmas to be a pleasant diversion anchored by an outstanding performance by Clarke. The movie highlights Clarke’s versatility as an actor, exploiting natural comedic timing and expressiveness that many of her fans from Game of Thrones might not recognize. Last Christmas may be the perfect vehicle for pulling her out of any type-casting that might have come from playing The Dragon Queen, Daenerys Targaryen.