Two brothers, several bad decisions, and — thank god! — one happy ending. (Very spoilery. If you’re after my review, it’s here.)
The film follows brothers Tony and Roger Towers, whose relationship is fraught with unresolved anger and sibling rivalry. When we first meet Tony, he is a successful provincial nightclub owner, revelling in ’80s excess, with a kind and sweet girlfriend called Sue who adores him. He’s on track to open several more clubs and is celebrating on the train one Christmas Eve. He and Sue are en route to Nottingham for a family reunion, with Roger and his wife Paula joining the train at Luton.
Tony feels secure and successful, loving the trappings of his hard-earned wealth (though he’s also a frustrated singer and musician). It’s Sue who craves a simple life for them together. Yet as he moves up and down the various train carriages, he sees what would have happened to his and Roger’s lives (and of course the knock-on effects for family and friends, including Sue) if he had made different decisions along the way. Tony retains the knowledge he acquires in each timeline, and his efforts to fix things often only make it worse.
He twigs pretty quickly what is happening, though it takes him longer to realise that it’s not just about his own financial success (in one of the first carriages he walks into, he discovers he has lost all his money after overreaching himself with the new nightclubs, and is now destitute) but also about Roger’s life too. In fact the whole film is about the two of them, and it is Roger whose life takes a more shattering downward spiral.
Initially Tony thinks he can simply avoid his own future business failures by treating Roger more fairly in the past. But a new timeline sees Roger becoming a “name” while Tony remains an unknown, something Tony, while basically a decent human being, is not quite ready for.
One big secret determines much of what happens. Yes, Tony can’t actually sing. Actually that’s the medium-sized secret. In Tony’s first timeline the big secret hasn’t been revealed, and Roger and Tony’s relationship, while superficially friendly, is unequal and hides simmering tensions, resentment and jealousies. In a different train carriage, a different choice at a different time means the secret is known, but that too causes terrible problems, partly because of how and when Tony drives its reveal.
It is signposted pretty early on, and becomes obvious as a teenage Tony, always obsessed with why Auntie Vi gives Roger such great presents, watches his family in a 1950s train compartment: his dad Arthur, of whom the dark-haired Tony is the spitting image; his brunette mum Celia; and his bright ginger 10 year old brother Roger. It turns out Tony and Roger are not brothers, but cousins. Roger is the son of Auntie Vi, and Tony’s parents (Vi is Celia’s sister) have brought him up as their own.
The effects of the big secret and the choices Tony makes through his life range from the funny to the catastrophic for both men: failed businesses, broken marriages, missed dreams, a stint on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, a job at Radio Trent, addiction, family tragedy, and a succession of awful hairstyles, overly designed ’80s suits and British Rail tartan seat covers.
In one timeline Tony has an ex-wife and son who doesn’t speaks to him, in another a daughter who fills him in on his “new” life. He shuts Roger out from his successful nightclub, despite Roger’s input in making it a success; then loses all his money and becomes a drunken, raggedy hobo, staggering around the train asking if people recognise him. He and Roger make a single together that goes nowhere, though the recording is one of the few things Tony cherishes. In another timeline they have a huge hit with their song Eagles Of Love, but it turns out Roger is the musical talent; and while tuneless Tony feels trapped by his family, the talented, increasingly wayward Roger is attracting the young women. Worst of all, Roger becomes addicted to drink and drugs, and eventually Tony walks into a sombre carriage to discover his brother has died after trying to walk to Portsmouth down the motorway — his family are on the way back from his memorial service.
In different timelines Tony does and doesn’t meet Sue. When they do start chatting, he refuses her phone number because he has become so jaded about what he can offer her, with so many bad decisions to his name.
Near the end of the film, we see a different choice being made on a post-war train journey (filmed in black and white) which leads to a final, positive ending, and what is presumably a happy relationship between Tony and Roger.
In this timeline, the situation that is kept secret never happens at all; Vi keeps baby Roger. Vi, Tony (then a small boy), and his mum Celia are on the train on another snowy Christmas Eve, with a devastated teenage Vi about to hand over her baby to her sister. Tony writes Don’t Do It on a piece of paper and shows it to Vi, but it does no good. So he jumps out into the snowy night, forcing the train to stop, and a chase ensues. Tony narrowly escapes being run over by another train, before falling down a mine shaft. When he is brought safely back, Vi decides she will keep her baby. Celia is pleased for her; the distrust, unease and “sibling” rivalry between Tony and Roger growing up never materialises; and Roger doesn’t have to deal with the emotional trauma of knowing his mother felt obliged to give him up.
The child Tony is put back onto the train. This leads into the final Tony we see, who is older, white-haired, and soberly dressed. It’s set around now, with people Zooming and a man vaping. An online newspaper announces Prime Minister Michael Portillo must go. Tony looks at his reflection in the train window and realises how old he has become. He takes a photo of a smiling, older Sue out of his wallet and looks at with fondness (I am PRAYING they are still together and she hasn’t died or left him!) He takes the recording disk out of his pocket, something he’s been carrying through every carriage. It has previously been a recording of him and Roger, though depending on the choices made, and their musical direction, the writing and doodled drawings on the front have changed. Now it only has Tony on.
The train pulls into a snowy Nottingham Station. When he steps onto the platform, everyone else is met by friends and family, but there is no one to meet him and he doesn’t even know if there should be. As Tony stands in front of a large Christmas tree, behind him we see a man’s hand start to play a few notes on a piano. Tony turns around, smiling, then laughing, his eyes damp with tears. It is not shown, but it’s obvious that it’s Roger, and they are still close.
Last Train To Christmas is available on Sky