Christmas is not not a spooky holiday — its enduring Victorian English iconography and the three-ghost structure of A Christmas Carol ensure as much. So when the trailer for 2019’s Last Christmas first hit, starring Emilia Clarke as Kate, a young woman recovering from an illness, and Henry Golding as Tom, a mysterious man-out-of-time, audiences immediately began speculating: Is Tom a grim reaper? An angel? The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?
“It’s like we were The Matrix or something,” director Paul Feig told Vulture. “I still don’t understand why everybody decided they wanted to figure out and try to spoil it … it’s like, stop, guys! Just have a pure experience. Just have fun!”
A “pure experience” is one very effective way to describe Last Christmas. It’s as heartfelt as holiday movies come, full of twinkly lights and messages about being kind to the less fortunate. The main draw, besides it being one of Clarke’s first major post-Game of Thrones opportunities (co-written by Emma Thompson, no less), is that the movie is set to the feel-good music of George Michael. Along with the title Christmas radio staple, which plays something like four or five times throughout the film, Last Christmas features over a dozen other songs by the late Wham! member. But none of the lyrics to those songs give away the completely bonkers twist at the dark heart of Feig’s movie. (This article absolutely spoils that twist. Consider this a warning.)
Like Blinded by the Light and Yesterday earlier this year, Last Christmas seems at first blush to be another movie expertly crafted to celebrate the music of a single artist. Michael died on Christmas Day of 2016, and indeed, before he passed, he and Thompson discussed the idea of using the words “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart” as the plot concept for a holiday movie, which she and producer David Livingstone began working on nine years ago. According to Feig, “Emma had met with him before he passed away, and he had read the treatment that she had written up for the movie. He was very aware of it, and really liked what she was doing, and even brought up the homeless issue, and if that could be in there, because that was a big cause of his.” (In the film, Kate volunteers at a homeless shelter, a nod to Michael’s extensive, largely anonymous philanthropy work.)
Michael was even planning on helping with the movie’s music supervision, “but then, the sadness is he passed, and never got to see it,” Feig says. “It just made me even more want to make this into a love letter to him, because his DNA is so hard-wired into this story.”
By the time Feig got involved, Last Christmas was only meant to feature a handful of songs from Michael: His estate had agreed to the film’s use of the title song, as well as an unreleased song called “This Is How (We Want You to Get High)” that features prominently in the movie’s credits. “Originally, we made a deal. We couldn’t go into production without having a guarantee that we could use his music, but we made a deal for like, five songs,” Feig says. But as Feig embarked upon pre-production for the movie and started familiarizing himself with Michael’s deeper cuts (Feig says he, like too many Americans, really only knew Michael’s radio hits prior to Last Christmas), the movie started “begging” for more of his music.
“I was like, [gasps]! I discovered ‘Heal the Pain.’ I didn’t even know that song. And suddenly I hear it, and I just got completely affected by it, and went, This is the anthem for this movie, even more so than ‘Last Christmas.’ So I kind of hard-wired it into a couple of scenes.”
Feig had never heard “Praying for Time” either, but it made its way into a pivotal scene between Clarke and Golding, when the two lead characters finally end up on a date. “You would think there’d just be kind of a nice romantic ballad there, but no,” says the director. “We want this song that’s almost kind of dark, and about how time’s running out.”
Fortunately, the estate was agreeable and allowed Feig, Thompson, & Co. to use a total of 15 songs. “I think that if it was a really dark story or something, maybe the estate might not have been as amenable to it,” Feig says. “But there’s such a hard-to-hate tone to it, and they were very much on board.”
Here’s where we had to call Feig out, because, in some ways, his generous-spirited holiday movie really is a “dark story.” The major twist to Last Christmas is how literally the film interprets those aforementioned lyrics: Toward the end of the movie, Kate learns that the mysterious Tom died in an accident Last Christmas™️ and he physically, posthumously gave her his heart. The illness she’s been recovering from this whole time? Yeah, that was remedied by heart-transplant surgery, and his death is the reason that was possible. The revelation (whether you expected it or not) gives Dan Fogelman joints a run for their money. It plays out in flashbacks, showing Clarke, horrified, recounting every romantic scene she thought she shared with him, this time with no Golding in sight.
Feig describes his initial reaction to the premise as a series of exclamatory Oh my Gods and Ohs. “I am obsessed with remembering that response I had, because once you know too much, you start to second-guess,” he says. “My editor and I really found that pattern of seeing her with him, and then seeing the exact same scene, and it’s different. It was also finding that song, you know, the unplugged version of ‘Praying for Time,’ which we set up earlier on their first successful date. Having this pared-down version with these strings, this much more kind of heart-wrenching version of it — it all just kind of added up.”
One implication of the twist is that a film that dresses itself up in rom-com clothing is really, sneakily, about a damaged woman learning how to love herself. “None of us ever — I know I definitely didn’t want to, and Emma didn’t want to, and Emilia didn’t either — want to make a movie about, you know, a woman being saved by a man. That’s why most of my movies don’t even have a love story in them,” Feig says. “Sometimes you’re in this movie like Oh, he’s really helping her show her the way. But when you do realize, Oh my goodness, she’s actually helping herself, it’s a very empowering message in the guise of a rom-com.”
The twist also explains why Golding’s character comes off as something like a sprightly, Gene Kelly fantasy: “Henry? I mean, in this movie, he’s a little, yeah … I mean come on! Guys have had their Manic Pixie Dream Girls for a long time. Ladies gotta have theirs!”