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Inspired by the “Christmas film of the decade” Last Christmas, Ben Ryan reviews the film and the wider genre. 10/12/2019
I absolutely love a Christmas film. In particular I love the industry of truly mediocre Christmas films that proliferates each year and provides Channel 5 with a full weekend’s worth of programming each week from mid–November through to January. There’s an art form to producing these truly awful, predictable set pieces and I simply can’t get enough of them. So when my wife asked if I wanted to go and see this year’s blockbuster Last Christmas I naturally jumped at the chance (It is, after all, “the Christmas film of the decade” according to the trailer. How could I resist?)
So enjoyable did I find the experience I couldn’t resist writing a review which, in fine ‘Thought for the Day’ fashion, attempts to crow bar in a bit of Christianity at the end. Those who come to Theos hoping for some sort of Christian reflection might skip through to the last few paragraphs, but you will miss out on my musings on the wider mediocre Christmas film genre, which seems a shame.
It is my belief that a truly great, mediocre Christmas film must have five key features that define the genre, so how does Last Christmas compares on each?
1. A main female protagonist whose life is on a desperately wrong track.
Strictly speaking it doesn’t need to be a female protagonist. Most of these films are crude parodies of Dickens’s Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge plays the role of the misanthrope whose life is a study in loneliness, pointlessness and greed. However, the truly great mediocre Christmas film usually makes the protagonist a woman, usually a heartless, single, career woman who has selfishly abandoned loving family and friends in pursuit of a career in advertising/journalism/cooking which ultimately brings her no true fulfilment. Last Christmas’s version of this protagonist is Emilia Clarke’s Kate/Katarina who dodges the careerist cliché, but is nevertheless a woman spiralling through despair, sofa surfing between friends whose hospitality she abuses, avoiding her overbearing mother, drinking too much, sleeping around, messing up auditions and disappointing her long–suffering employer. Unusually for a mediocre Christmas film, these scenes are actually quite funny and have a bit more of a ring of plausibility to them than most. Still, she is clearly broken which can only mean that she urgently needs feature number 2 in her life:
2. An eccentric man to fix her.
The obvious antidote to the woman on the wrong track is always an eccentric man. Preferably, he should be a widower with an adorable but sassy child. If he has a child the mother must be dead, because in the mediocre Christmas film world good people are NEVER, EVER divorced or in any way morally compromised. Whether or not he’s a widower, he is required to show the female protagonist the error of her ways through his own weird personality and innate understanding of the true meaning of life. Henry Golding fulfils the role perfectly in Last Christmas as eccentric courier Tom who insists on dancing everywhere, going for walks and not having a phone (this qualifies him as being extremely weird). A disproportionate number of his lines involve imparting Instagram quote–worthy titbits of wisdom in a manner which can only possibly be considered to be thoroughly irritating. The gnomic wisdom isn’t quite enough though, like most eccentric mediocre Christmas film men Tom needs a little help from:
3. A tendentious plot that is heavily reliant on supernatural weirdness.
Not to give away any spoilers, but the supernatural weirdness in Last Christmas comes in via a huge plot twist which is about as subtle and unforeseen as a giant red Coca Cola Christmas lorry covered in lights. It’s hard to fault Last Christmas for this, as it employs one of the best uses of supernatural weirdness I’ve seen since the creepiness of 1998 mediocre Christmas film classic Jack Frost (in which Michael Keaton dies and is reincarnated as a sinister snowman in order to teach his son how to play ice hockey). Crucially, however, this supernatural weirdness has one cardinal rule:
4. Christianity must be nowhere in the plot.
Elves, Santa, fairies, talking reindeer, reincarnation and body shifting are all legitimate tropes. By contrast Christianity is nowhere to be found. It has always struck me as odd, in such a noisily Christian culture as the US, that Hollywood has built a Christmas film industry in which Christianity is nowhere to be found. Last Christmas actually seems a lot more self–conscious of this than most, insofar as it begins and ends in a church, a sort of half–hearted wave towards the idea that somewhere in all these festivities there is something to do with Jesus in the mix. Still, while Christianity is muted, there is plenty of space for:
5. Total, absolute and immediate redemption
After spending anywhere between half and two thirds of the average mediocre Christmas film establishing how far from the right path the protagonist’s life is, it is always remarkable how rapidly they flip the switch and have a personality transplant. Families which have torn themselves apart are reunited permanently after a single conversation or a thoughtful gift. Lifelong habits are shrugged off without so much as a backward glance. Last Christmas is absolutely typical here of the mediocre Christmas film. By the end, relationships are mended and characters redeemed at breakneck pace. The total family discord of twenty minutes or so previously is replaced by a family singalong after a couple of gifts and a heart–to–heart chat with sisters, father and mother all happily reconciled. (It should be mentioned that Emma Thompson as the over–bearing, impossible, Yugoslav migrant mum is extremely funny).
In a genre replete with magic elves, Father Christmases, time travel, spirits and talking animals, somehow I always think this is among the least believable part of these films. In real life it isn’t easy to entirely reinvent the habits of a lifetime, and families do not simply knit easily back together again after years of strife. The path to redemption usually does involve regular backsliding, strained relationships and the requirement on everyone’s part of patience, love and tolerance. Even then, to expect everything to be simply fixable is more than a little naïve. Herein lies my serious Christian point at the end of a rant about mediocre Christmas films (welcome back to our regular longwave listeners re–joining the Theos blog here).
Christians, in my experience, are as guilty as anyone else of indulging a rather unhealthy appetite for a Christmas film style idea of total immediate redemption and complete self–reinvention. We revel in the stories of those who have found God and turned their life entirely around and sometimes seem to take St Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus as a prototype, rather than extreme outlier for the process of conversion.
St Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus was remarkable precisely in its extremeness. To my mind, the single most reassuring aspect of the Gospels is that the disciples, despite living each day in the immediate presence of God incarnate, constantly fail, complain, misunderstand and generally struggle. St Peter, the rock on which Jesus built his Church, messes up regularly, a process which apparently continues after the Resurrection, such that within a few years Paul tells the Galatians that he was forced to have a face to face row with him about it. The enduring appeal of the greatest theological work of the West’s greatest theologian, St Augustine’s Confessions, lies in its searingly honest portrayal of Augustine’s long, winding journey, filled with failings and backslidings, which continue long after he has accepted the truth of Christianity. It’s also why the Catholic Church is so committed to the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) – it is a recognition that devoting your life to Christian ideals is a constant work in progress, not a binary on or off.
The mediocre Christmas film is an exercise in escapism. It can’t be expected to have much major character development or any appreciation of the difficulties involved in actually turning your life around. People simply do not watch Channel 5 for that sort of thing. The only problem is that wider expectations for how difficult it is to really turn your life around aren’t often always that much more subtle, even among Christians who really ought to know better.
Last Christmas incidentally was actually quite funny. 6/10, would rewatch when it lands on Channel 5 next year.
Ben Ryan is Head of Research at Theos. He is the editor of Fortress Britain? Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018) and the author of Theos reports on chaplaincy, the EU, the Catholic charity sector, mental health and ecumenism. He holds degrees in European politics from the LSE and in Theology and Religious Studies from Cambridge. Outside of Theos he is a trustee of CSAN (Caritas Social Action Network).
Posted 10 December 2019
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