by Ben Bellevue
*Warning: Minor Spoilers*
I have a tradition every November. Each year, the day after Thanksgiving, I wake up, get in my car, blast Christmas music for the first time that year, and go Black Friday shopping. It’s not just the start of my favorite holiday season (sorry Halloween, you also rule), but one of my favorite parts of the holiday. I get to listen to festive music, watch families enjoy themselves while they shop, see the Christmas decorations at the mall: it’s great. It captures a lot of what I love about the season: the magic and togetherness of it all. Throughout the rest of the season I get to go ice-skating, see Christmas lights, buy fun gifts for the people I love, go to Christmas Disneyland, and see my family. I do these things and I smile blissfully and I think, “this is what Christmas is. God I love it!” And I do, but the thing is, I also don’t. Because this isn’t all Christmas is. Christmas isn’t just the best moments. It’s also the stress over finding the right gifts, feeling overwhelmed with work to prepare for the holiday break (if you’re lucky enough to have a holiday break), the annoyances of family, and so much more.
Christmas is messy. It’s wonderful yet chaotic and oftentimes it doesn’t live up to the expectations placed upon it. That’s the Christmas of real life, but that’s not the Christmas of Hollywood. Hollywood’s Christmas is (predominantly) portrayed as at risk. That can be on a grand level, such as with Elf, The Santa Clause and Miracle on 34th Street – where Santa Claus is at risk of being unable to deliver the gifts, or a more personal one, such as A Christmas Story or Jingle All the Way – where the crux of the story is the pursuit of a present and, in that present’s acquisition; at the end of the day, Christmas is saved and everyone lives happily ever after. This isn’t to say these movies are superficial, nor am I arguing that there’s no emotional growth for the characters. However, these movies have a general theme: “save the holiday, save the world”. This salvation may come from the process of saving Christmas (bonds formed, confidence gained) or from the spirit of Christmas itself – but the salvation comes. These movies are, for all intents and purposes, embodiments of the ideals of Christmas. They ARE the Christmas spirit, and I love them for that. However, this is where Last Christmas stands out.
Last Christmas is messy. It’s trying to do a million and one things, it balances those things poorly, and frankly even with perfect balancing I still think it would have been overstuffed. So yes, it’s a messy movie… but I think that’s kind of beautiful, because that’s Christmas. The characters and world of Last Christmas are complicated. Our protagonist Kate (Emilia Clarke) struggles with her career aspirations, her relationships with friends and family, her identity, and her mental health. And this is all in spite of the Christmas spirit that is foisted upon her not only by the season but the job she holds throughout the year – working as an “elf” at a year-round Christmas shop. If anything, she is a character that is, understandably, numb to the veneer of the holiday. I’m somebody who doesn’t play Christmas music until Thanksgiving is over because I want to keep that magic contained enough that it still FEELS like magic each year. Kate dresses up in an elf costume and gets inundated with the machinations of Christmas fifty-two weeks a year.
Christmas isn’t magic. It doesn’t solve anything. The struggles of the world are not drowned out by a catchy Bing Crosby song (or George Michael song in this film’s case), but we can try to be better – for ourselves and for each other, one step at a time. Kate doesn’t have a magical realization that she shouldn’t bed depressed because of some guardian angel or Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. She’s just inspired to try, a little bit at a time. And yes, part of what initially inspires her to try is a man who is so inhumanly optimistic and seemingly unaware of social norms that I’m still FLABBERGASTED he isn’t supposed to be an angel or elf or some other supernatural being that doesn’t quite “get” humanity. I’m gonna be honest, the relationship between Kate and Tom (Henry Golding) is my least favorite part of the movie. It’s awkwardly paced and his entire personality is strangely inhuman. HOWEVER, there’s also something charming to the awkwardness of his character. He is, effectively, the spirit of Christmas; the hope and optimism and sense of joy that is so infused into the holiday. It’s a spirit that is at times heavy-handed and cheesy; an optimism that you’re inclined to roll your eyes at, and not undeservedly so. However, sometimes it’s nice to go with it, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s nice to just “look up” – take it all in (as Tom so frequently urges Kate to do). And sure, a physically different view of the world isn’t going to magically solve your problems, but maybe it can be that initial push: a brief moment of hope, no matter how heavy-handed the delivery.
After that push though? You’re on your own, and Last Christmas knows it. Tom’s spirit of optimism isn’t reliable, nor would it be enough even if it was. Kate has to fix her own life, inch-by-inch, and not in any particularly grand way. She heals her family life by trying to connect. She reconnects with her boss by putting effort into her job again. She reignites her passion for singing not by finally getting the West End job she dreams of, but by trying to help those who are also struggling – an act that, in and of itself, does not magically go well. After all, when she decides to sing outside the homeless shelter to raise donations, she makes less money in an hour than if she’d an hours worth of her Christmas shop pay. Through patience and perseverance, though, she’s able to build this act of charity into a legitimate aid to the shelter. It’s only with time and effort that things get better.
Perhaps more notable than the issues Kate can resolve in her life, though, are the issues she can’t. Throughout the movie, Kate and her family deal with being immigrants in a post-Brexit London (the movie is set in 2016, a few months after the initial vote). My initial takeaway regarding this storyline was that it was awkward; there was no real overarching narrative message, only a scene of discrimination towards an immigrant couple and a few instances of Kate’s family reacting to news reports. In an interview with Emma Thompson, who not only played Kate’s mother but co-wrote the film, she expressed how she felt she had to include the Brexit moments because it would be disingenuous not to when the main characters are immigrants. While I’m not saying that Brexit couldn’t have been better woven into the overarching narrative – it certainly could have – there is also something truthful in these experiences as simply being elements of life that people endure without them becoming their defining aspect. Despite Kate’s work to improve, her family still has to deal with the threat of Brexit and the culture that surrounds it, and this thematically continues into other aspects of her life. She may have mended her relationship with her family, but her mom is still intense and demanding, causing lasting damage to Kate and her sister that won’t magically disappear. She still doesn’t have the acting career she aspires to, and maybe she never will. Hell, she doesn’t even have a job where she can afford to pay her own rent! Struggles abound; there is no magical solution to everything, and that’s okay.
Last Christmas is messy and overstuffed – but so is Christmas; so is life! In the film’s flaws I see the chaos of the holidays. Christmas isn’t perfect, but for all of its stresses and hardships… at its core is an idea: hope. It’s not the magical spirit of Christmas that propels Santa’s sleigh into the skies of New York after everyone breaks into song, but we don’t need that. We don’t need Santa to deliver the perfect gift or a guardian angel to show us the world without us. None of that matters. What matters is that we ARE here. So do what you can with the life you’ve been given. Try. Look up. Find your hope. You’ll still struggle, and things will still suck sometimes, but it’s the little steps. That’s what Christmas is, really, and Last Christmas knows that. There are many great Christmas movies that embody the Christmas ideal, and I love them for that. Last Christmas is special for its ability to capture Christmas. I’m not saying that makes it a perfect movie, nor am I saying it’s my favorite Christmas movie. However, I do think it’s perfect, in its own weird way, at being about Christmas. I appreciate what Last Christmas is doing, and for that I believe it deserves a place on the shelves of Christmas classics.