★★★½ - STUFF
- It was my Love Actually moment. No, not the one you're thinking – the bit involving Liam Neeson's stepson performing on stage.
Dunedin's Balmacewen Intermediate, 1986. My best mate and I had decided to pen a play inspired by The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole and one of our classmates (who bizarrely even agreed to play himself). Foolishly, our teacher had decided to let us perform it in front of the whole school (thankfully not to parents though).
While we'd decided not play any roles, I had allowed myself one moment of indulgence, a bizarre dream sequence which would allow me to channel George Michael (white t-shirt and all) and lip-sync Wham's Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. Thirty-three years on, some of my schoolfriends still remember the "surrealness" of it.
Michael's music was the soundtrack of my teenage years (my cassette copy of The Final developed a crinkle at the start of Last Christmas), Wham's greatest hits is one of the few albums both my wife and I own and, this week, I discovered I still know all it's lyrics.
So a movie inspired by the late, great man's songs, penned by Dame Emma Thompson and boasting everyone's favourite mother of the dragons Emilia "Game of Thrones" Clarke in the lead sounded like perfect late spring fare. She plays Kate, an aspiring singer whose current life is punctuated by unhealthy choices.
Estranged from her Yugoslavian immigrant family, Kate has somehow also managed to burn through almost every single accommodation option available to her. The only constant in her life is her job as an elf at garish Christmas store Yuletide. But even that is on thin ice, after she forgets to lock up while running late for an audition. Fortunately, Kate's boss Santa (Michelle Yeoh) decides to give her one more chance, provided she pulls herself together. And, as if she needed further inspiration, there's the mysterious and dishy Tom (Henry Goulding), who seems to turn up at the most unexpected moments to put a smile on her face.
Despite what the marketing may have you believe, Last Christmas is not a rom-com and it's only slightly more of a musical than Love Actually. Instead, director Paul Feig (A Simple Favour, Bridesmaids) and writer Thompson have created a festive family dramedy that takes clear inspiration – almost too literally – from some of Michael's lyrics.
This is a love letter to the Praying For Time singer, late-year London and a celebration of life, community and the melting pot of ethnicities that immigration creates. The script certainly wears its heart (be warned – tears are likely to flow) and its politics on its sleeve and Feig takes every opportunity he can to showcase Michael's more heartfelt tunes.
But, you can also see the stitches and the seams, which means any surprises are disappointingly rather telegraphed.
Some of the supporting characters also seems a little underwritten, while two female comedy coppers seems straight out of the New Zealand cinematic and televisual universe (think Wellington Paranormal or The Breaker Upperers).
Then again, the bar for Crimble comedies and festive flights of fancy is not high (Four Christmases and The Family Stone being prime examples) and this is light years ahead of those in terms of entertainment.
In fact, it could well become a Christmas viewing staple in the decades ahead. That's thanks largely to the star power of Clarke. As with the hugely underrated Me Before You, she lights up every frame, delivering a performance full of chutzpah and charm, melancholic moments, acerbic asides, heartbreak and pure joy.
Thank goodness the film-makers decided to put their Faith in her.
- James Croot, STUFF