Emilia Clarke rose to fame on Game of Thrones as steely queen Daenerys Targaryen, mother of dragons, leader of armies, possessor of cascading platinum locks unbothered by even the faintest hint of brassiness. Off the series, however, she’s tended to come across as gleefully unregal, a woman whose expressive eyebrows can conduct entire conversations of their own on her forehead. Until Last Christmas, none of Clarke’s roles highlighted this good-time goofball energy, much less effectively harnessed it. But as Kate, an aspiring singer and current elf-costumed retail worker, the actress gets to operate in a mode that suits her — that of the endearing mess, coasting by on shambolic warmth and you-know-I-didn’t-mean-for-that-to-happen winces for longer than should really be possible.
Last Christmas is a bit of a mess itself — a disjointed jumble of romantic comedy, holiday fantasy, love letter to the music of George Michael, and pro-immigrant statement. Whether it’s as endearing as its heroine is a complicated call to make. The film, directed by Paul Feig and co-written by Emma Thompson (who also plays Kate’s Yugoslavian mother, Adelia), doesn’t aspire to excellence. It aims instead for the reassuringly preworn quality of a VHS tape someone might dig out of a drawer to watch at a family gathering because their uncle still happens to own a VCR. It has a twist so telegraphed that you might wait for there to be another, cleverer one on top of it (you will wait in vain!). It makes no real attempt to pull its many disparate threads together coherently, or to present its London as anything other than adorably twinkly. It is, despite or because of these things, a cozy viewing experience, which means that it’s accomplished what it set out to do and will doubtless be put into seasonal rotation on cable networks as soon as possible.
So: Kate is a rambunctious 20-something Londoner who’s been stuck in neutral ever since an unexpected, serious health scare a few years earlier. She’s been testing the patience of her friends and flatmates with her inconsiderate flakiness, not to mention the owner (a marvelously unimpressed Michelle Yeoh) of the Christmas tchotchke shop at which she works. Her family lives nearby, but she avoids them and their dramas in favor of crashing on couches, and when she runs out of those, trolling for someone acceptable at the pub (which is what she does, with less-than-ideal results, when the movie begins). That is not, however, how she has her meet-cute with Tom (Henry Golding), the handsome, impossibly wholesome, overtly mysterious bike courier she soon finds herself falling for. Tom just turns up outside her work one day, and, like the manic pixie [redacted]boy he is, starts wooing her with tours of the city’s hidden secrets and stealthy forays into closed ice-skating rinks.
It’s not, for reasons both too spoiler-y and metaphysical to go into, the most effective love story. It is a somewhat better one about self-improvement, if only because Kate is such a plausible sort of minor asshole, someone who likes to bemoan all the bad things that happen to her while never considering that any of them could ever be the result of her own actions. Clarke keeps her character just on the right side of applaudable, even when she’s doing things like impulsively outing her sister, Marta (Lydia Leonard), at the dinner table. As Kate’s relationship with Tom grows, he pushes her out of what’s become her comfort zone of carelessness, to reengage with the people she cares about and with the world, steering her toward the homeless shelter he volunteers at. The corniness of it is balanced by how relatively inept Kate remains — when she starts trying to make amends for her own selfishness, it’s not with grand, sweeping fixes but with small, awkward gestures.
Sweet as those moments may be, they’ve got nothing on the most moving element of the movie, the one that also happens to be it’s most jury-rigged. Last Christmas has way too much going on to devote adequate time to really filling out the fact that its central family are Balkan refugees. But it is present underneath everything else going on, from the anglicized name that Kate (born Katarina) insists on going by to the cautious half-existences of her parents. The movie suggests that they were derailed by the trauma of war in a way that echoes Kate’s more personal ordeal, and that they’ve felt too scarred by what happened to them to ever really relax into the lives their now very British daughters take for granted. Kate and her family are not the only immigrants in the film — the London of Last Christmas may be cloyingly quaint in appearance, but it’s pointedly international in population. When Thompson’s character, watching news about Brexit on the television, mournfully places the decision in a larger historical context of xenophobic scapegoating, the clunkiness of how the moment comes about doesn’t matter. Sometimes you just have to let yourself be a sucker for the obvious — whether it’s for a holiday movie, a ridiculous romance, or an awkwardly grafted-on but very timely theme.