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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Last Christmas, Review: Rom-com gone tragi-com

Last Christmas, Review: Rom-com gone tragi-com

A film that is titled Last Christmas could work its title two ways, either as the last Christmas of someone who is not going to see another one, or as referring to something that happened at last year’s Christmas. Since it chooses the latter path, you presume it will be a film full of happy memories of the lead actors. Sadly, there is very little that is happy about Last Christmas. For all it is worth, the title might have had the former connotation, because this film is about targetted refugees, a sick heroine who needs a heart transplant, a young man who sits in lonely parks and works as a volunteer at a night-shelter, and more such melancholia.                                                                                                       

Katarina is a good singer and leads the chorus as a young girl in a Yugoslavian church. That was in 1999. Some twenty years later, the family has migrated to the UK after the balkanisation of Yugoslavia and the long ethnic conflict that resulted in millions losing their lives. Her father, who was a lawyer, works as a micro cab driver, because his degree is not recognised in the UK and he cannot afford to get a local degree. Kate, as she now prefers to be called, is hopeful of getting singing assignments from music publishing companies or TV or films, but her voice is not what it used to be. She faces rejection after rejection, and does get a bit demoralised.

That winter, she takes on the vacation job of an elf at a Christmas store, run by a Chinese woman who calls herself Santa. She is often late and clumsy by nature, but Santa is large-hearted. There, she makes the acquaintance of a cycle delivery boy named Tom Webster, and gradually falls in love with him. He is disarmingly non-judgemental and respects her so much that he avoids getting intimate, even on invitation, not having committed to her as yet. He takes her to lonely lanes and parks she never knew existed. Santa, meanwhile, gets to know a shy patron, a middle-aged German, and they get close after a couple of dates. Tom is not to be seen for several days, and does not have a mobile phone. She checks him out at the shelter, but the day-shift volunteers don’t seem to have heard of him, although there are a dozen Toms around. Kate is about to discover that Tom, to whom she said, “You look like a Webster,” is neither Tom nor Webster. She makes her second visit to his spic and span flat, this time alone, and discovers that …

Emma Thompson and Greg Wise (her Sense and Sensibility co-star, and husband since 2003) co-wrote the story, with Byrony Kimmings, a multi-platform live artist who makes her film-writing debut, collaborating on the screenplay. It has a very British flavour and bits of British humour. Producer-actress Emma gets to poke fun at English language as a Serbo-Croatian immigrant conversing with two daughters who speak English like natives, and a husband who’s not too far away, by virtue of having interacted with so many passengers. If they intended it to be a romantic comedy, they got most of it wrong. There is nothing funny about war and asylum, racial profiling and intolerance towards immigrants, dozens of homeless vagabonds sleeping and eating at night shelters, sisters at loggerheads about the lesbian relationship formed by one of them, a Chinese woman finding her own, three-word Chinese name very funny, and calling herself Santa instead, to be integrated into mainstream British society, a gifted singer failing audition after audition because an operation has resulted in her singing failing to make the cut and being convinced that she is unlucky and jinxed …. Fear of spoiler revelation comes in my way, or I could expand on the list of unfunny, even tragic threads that run through Last Christmas.

On the other hand, with a just a little toning down of the humour, Last Christmas can become a real tear-jerker. But it’s time now to bring in why this film was made, in the first place. Blame it on the big hit that George Michael of Wham! sang, ‘Last Christmas’. That and many unreleased songs of the man/group are to be heard on the soundtrack of Last Christmas, which has music by Theodore Shapiro. Point is, if ABBA can, why cannot WHAM!? A film based loosely on the songs, the lyrics of which are used as screenplay points.

Bridesmaids, Spy and Ghostbuster director, who is also an actor and director, Paul Feig, wields the megaphone. Besides some good casting and sincere performances, he will not be able to claim too much on his account. Firstly, the film addresses too many issues—social, political, racial, lingual, filial, meta-physical, supernatural, etc., that there is no focus. Secondly, each situation seems to be tailored to lead into a particular song, so the flow is not natural.

Emilia (Me Before You, Voice from the Stone, Solo: A Star Wars Story) Clarke as Kate could be a Disney heroine who just walked off one set on to another. As the bad-luck stricken elf, she is very convincing. Henry Golding, with only six films in ten years, is gifted, and will go a long way. Malaysian Chinese star Michelle Yeoh is Santa, neither a Crouching Tiger, nor a Hidden Dragon. She has the organic accent and plays her age (57), always an advantage. Emma Thompson (Love Actually, Harry Potter and Men in Black) is Petra, the mother of Kate and Marta, while Marta is played by Lydia Leonard. Dame Thompson, at 60, has spent half her life in the movies. There is very little that she cannot do. Boris Isakovic is cast as Emma’s husband, Ivan.

Designed to overkill the Christmas legend, Last Christmas releases, strangely, almost seven weeks before Christmas. Instead of overkill, it fails to make any killing, not even a turkey. Or maybe turns one. We’ll soon know. I doubt if Last Christmas will be playing when this Christmas comes along. Merry Christmas!

Rating: **


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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