Emilia Clarke is in desperate need of better material.
Emilia Clarke is in desperate need of better material. The actress, despite playing one of the most iconic television characters of all time (and playing her exceptionally), has had really poor luck on the big screen. She tried her hardest with an alternate-universe version of Terminator’s Sarah Connor in 2015’s Terminator: Genisys, but there she was forced to play a dumbed-down version of a beloved character. In 2016’s treacly Me Before You, she carried a fine central love story before her character’s paramour decided to off himself. In 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, her character Qi’ra was so underwritten that Clarke appeared to be writing every line herself as she went along. Unfortunately, this trend continues with Paul Feig’s (kind of) romantic comedy Last Christmas. Clarke is far and away the best thing about the film. In her best moments, Clarke almost uncannily resembles a young Julie Christie in looks, demeanor and ability. But her spark can’t be attributed to mimicry. The actress carries a distinct intelligence and inner fire with her that makes her impossible to look away from.
In Last Christmas, Clarke’s Kate works in a year-round Christmas shop, which only serves to bring her salty personality to the forefront. Kate’s family emigrated years before, but her relationship with her crackling, cackling mother (Emma Thompson, who also co-wrote the script with Bryony Kimmings) reveals a more problematic history than she lets on. Kate’s boss, a Santa aficionado (played with gung-ho freedom by Michelle Yeoh), irritates her, but she’s used to the treatment after spending years on the receiving end of her mother’s taunts.
One day, Kate notices a man (Crazy Rich Asians’ dreamboat Henry Golding) staring into the sky outside her store. They quickly fall into a romance, a romance that goes in nontraditional directions, which is almost required in today’s marketplace. But, in some ways, it would have actually been more satisfying to see Last Christmas go in a more traditional direction with this central romance. The leads have chemistry, and they spend their time together on the loose in Central London, one of the world’s most beautiful Christmastime locations. But things veer off into strange and surprising directions.
Thompson’s and Kimmings’ script is occasionally a lot of fun, and while it doesn’t reach the heights of Feig’s own Bridesmaids, it is honest and interesting, particularly when addressing the plight of immigrants in the UK. But, as the story’s main action careens towards the weird relationship between Clarke’s Kate and Golding’s Tom, we are only occasionally treated to the film’s humorous heart. It’s only when we catch Kate solo, at work, or with her mother Petra (who is played with relish by Emma Thompson) that we catch Last Christmas’s real appeal. This, and the abundance of cleverly featured George Michael songs.
Last Christmas has a large and odd twist that dominates its final third, and this twist cuts so deep that it reframes the film’s genre. In the end, Last Christmas isn’t actually a romantic comedy, yet the film isn’t brave enough for it to be the lady-led bildungsroman it is at its core. Though Clarke does a superb job inhabiting Kate and selling her struggles, the place the character eventually arrives at undermines much of what the majority of the film spends its time establishing. It’s odd, because the twist isn’t necessarily a bad one. It just frivolously negates so many other facets of the film that it makes one wonder if the central issue here is one of vision, or marketing, or both.
Last Christmas probably won’t wind up being a holiday classic, but it does occasionally highlight Emilia Clarke’s formidable talents while also including a few zesty one-liners from co-writer and co-star Emma Thompson. Hopefully, the film will be a raging success, which will allow ever-patient Clarke fans the chance to watch their khaleesi spread her wings.