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Among the many genres that have suffered in our age of superhero domination, perhaps none has been harder hit than the romantic comedy.
If anyone can bring holiday romance back to the big screen in a big way, however, it’s screenwriter/actress Emma Thompson. In her latest, Last Christmas (rated PG-13 for language), Thompson steals every scene she’s in as the domineering, immigrant mother of the lovely but self-destructive Kate (Emilia Clarke).
We learn that Kate is promiscuous from the morning-after effects of her behavior, but the movie portrays this as all of a piece with her other bad choices, like drinking to excess and treating her friends and family with selfish disregard. Then she meets Tom (Henry Golding), who teaches her that finding true love isn’t the most important thing in life. Rather, it’s to give of yourself to others.
Unlike most romantic comedies, almost nothing in Kate’s life changes to make her happy, except that under Tom’s influence, she begins to treat people with more generosity. She starts volunteering in a homeless shelter and takes her lonely mother out on the town. Meanwhile, her relationship with Tom unfolds almost solely through long walks through nighttime London, their physical affection limited to brief kisses and hand-holding.
Clarke plays a warrior princess on Game of Thrones, but as she proves here, she may be the most winsome comedic actress of her generation. Even when the story lags, she lights up the screen with her crinkle-eyed smile. Aside from brief pro-LGBT messaging through a minor character, it doesn’t lag often, though. Just when it feels as if a political agenda is going to gum up the works, Thompson comes in with a zinger that reminds us it’s human nature to blame others for our problems. And no one, not even a xenophobic ranter, is ultimately left out in the cold.
Some viewers will dislike a late twist in the story. But thankfully it does nothing to subtract from the overall feeling Last Christmas leaves us with—goodwill toward men.