An interview with Swan Song director Chelsea McMullan about their Rogers Best Canadian Documentary nominee on Karen Kain’s Swan Lake.
Backhanded Brexit: Paul Feig’s Last Christmas
November 21, 2019
“Last Christmas identifies social divisions in the UK as transient and effectively evaporates them.”
Shrouded in tinsel, carols, and costumes, Last Christmas is a bright and cheerful romp to usher in the holiday season. Overall lively and bubbly, and featuring witty quips from the ever-amiable Emilia Clarke, the film frequently signposts current UK politics. However, while Last Christmas succeeds in integrating the Brexit buzz into its narrative, it fails to produce a meaningful interrogation of British social divisions. Rather, its 103 minute run relies on comedy and Clarke’s charisma to intercept politically substantive moments with superficial resolutions. This thematic shuffle introduces and then promptly abandons any productive discussions of Brexit or Western xenophobia.
Last Christmas follows Kate (Clarke), a bright but apparently stunted young woman whose life came to a crashing halt after she underwent a heart transplant. Kate, who is initially understood as a quintessential British young adult, is unwilling to go home to her overbearing mother. Instead, she couch surfs around London looking for love and companionship. It is only after Kate pisses off one too many friends that the 25-year-old returns to her childhood home. At this point, audiences come to learn about Kate’s lineage. Her family, who are implied to have sought asylum in the UK from Eastern Europe, are Yugoslavian. When Kate arrives home, and her European heritage is brought to the surface, the film broaches the rise of xenophobia in the United Kingdom.
Last Christmas initially approaches themes of European division through Kate’s rejection of her heritage. Several times throughout the piece, she pushes away from her Yugoslavian roots in favour of a more typically British alias.
“Katerina!” her sister whines outside of the Christmas themed store where Kate is employed. “It’s Kate,” she replies with a tense and frustrated tone. Kate’s rejection of her birth name may be understood as an internalization of Brexit politics. Perhaps she wants to be thought of as British or to avoid prejudice by presenting as Western European. Regardless of intention, Kate’s multiple identifiers represent her ability to toggle between worlds: Slavic immigrant and simultaneous millennial Brit, she can navigate both cultures.
Kate’s fluid cultural identity is best demonstrated in the latter half of the film. While riding a bus in central London, she sees a British man interrupt a Yugoslavian couple to aggressively demand that they speak to each other in English. Kate is quick to the rescue. She promptly approaches the couple in a Serbo-Croatian language and affirms to them that they are wanted in the UK. She even introduces herself as “Katerina.” This action cuts the scene’s tension and weakens the narrative’s focus on British ethnonationalism. Here, Kate saves the day when she is able to seamlessly switch from a Western to Eastern European vernacular. That is, Kate’s charm and multicultural prowess negotiates bigotry out of the picture. Here, the film attempts to resolve its dive into the hideous social landscape with small talk: alluding to xenophobic tensions before swiftly ironing them out.
Further, through its unwillingness to sustain an interrogation of the hateful interaction, the scene is seemingly more interested in assuaging worries about European otherness in England than it is in depicting or condemning nationalist attitudes. The Yugoslavian couple’s peppy rebound implies that migrants will be able to quickly assimilate despite the verbal and mental abuse they may endure at the hands of bigoted rhetoric. Like the film’s heroine, the couple on the bus must simply go from “Katerina” to “Kate.”
Last Christmas muddles its interrogation of rising xenophobia in the UK by making experiences and fears of immigrants ancillary through lighthearted back and forth. We see this progression again when Kate’s mother, Petra (Emma Thompson), is asked at the doctor’s office why she doesn’t spend more time with her friends. Seemingly outraged, Petra loudly exclaims that all of her friends have been murdered. The exchange is generally amusing, and left the audience members on either side of me in stitches. Despite its charming overtones, this moment is exploitative of Petra’s isolation in the UK, her otherness. This scene, which should be weighed down with the harsh subjectivity of migrants in search of safety, is coded as humourous and hastily abandons its interest in Petra’s experiences.
While Last Christmas is a romantic comedy and not a political drama, its refusal to meaningfully address UK politics is nevertheless troubling. Rather than using comedy to produce a satire that teases out social problems, the film inserts humour to jettison political conversations. The pattern of resolving socially violent interactions with simple acts of kindness and comic relief speaks to the rise of xenophobia in the West without taking it seriously. This cookie cutter approach to Brexit politics is neglectful – even eerie – in its inability to corroborate UK social maladies as being in need of sustained attention. In failing to weigh down these moments Last Christmas identifies social divisions in the UK as transient and effectively evaporates them.
— Genevieve Citron (TFCA Emerging Critic Award, 2019)