Nightclub owner Tony Towers, on a train with his fiancée on Christmas Eve 1985, sees how his life might have been if he had made different decisions along the way.
The synopsis of Last Train To Christmas made it sound like a mash-up of A Christmas Carol, Snowpiercer, Sliding Doors and The Hitman And Her (google Michaela Strachan), so I sat down to watch it expecting artisanal farmers’ market levels of cheese, some festive ghosts and hopefully some glorious mullets. I was indeed blessed with the ghosts (of a sort) and mullets (mostly sitting on the head of nightclub impresario and local legend Tony Towers), and there are many British Rail sliding doors; though the lachrymose-intolerant can relax, as cheesy sentimentality is nowhere to be found.
Rather unfortunately, while for 11 months of the year I’m a miserable old grinch, come the festive season I actually like cheesy sentimentality, and Last Train To Christmas is often a sad tale. While Christmas stories are, at their best, a fragile layer of sparkle overlaying darkness, I’m just saying don’t go into this expecting a comedy.
There are certainly many funny moments, pitched perfectly by Sheen amongst the terrible shocks he faces (his musician brother Roger’s idea that they stage a festival with top performers doing the set they would have done when they were 27, which is the age many rock gods die, is in extremely bad taste. And yet, and yet!) but this is more a story about family. Though in a step up from your average Eastenders Christmas Special, jealousy, sibling rivalry and one giant family secret serves to rupture not just one Christmas but many, as Tony wanders from train carriage to train carriage, back and forwards across his own timelines as he sees the different decisions he makes playing out across the years.
Set initially in 1985, Tony, complete with Peter Stringfellow hair, and his new fiancée, the sweet-natured and beautiful Sue (Nathalie Emmanuel), are ensconced on a train en route to Nottingham for a family Christmas reunion (Sheen and Emmanuel enjoy terrific chemistry though she is sadly underused). Getting on at Luton are his younger brother Roger (Cary Elwes) and Roger’s wife Paula (Katherine Kelly), though from the moment Tony and Sue enter the carriage Tony is playing the big man: champagne all round, he tells the smattering of strangers around them.
Quickly though the veneer of his perfect life is destroyed, as every time Tony moves into another carriage he, and his life, changes. Forwards and backwards, his eventual successes and failures – initially illustrated by the cuts of his suits, haircuts and levels of grime — are dependent on different choices he’s made. Sometimes it feels like he’s stuck in a terrifying maze-like puzzle; no matter what he does to make life better, some painful consequence unfolds for him or someone else.
But this isn’t just about Tony, who actually twigs relatively early on what must be happening. He’s not the bad guy we’re expecting, and Last Train To Christmas twists gently into something more interesting about love, the historical seeds of family conflict, and what we are prepared to give up to save our nearest and dearest.
Tony, it turns out, is very much a local legend, his many lives proving that however successful one might be, one is never far away from a stint on Radio Trent or indeed panto. He is still more than the sum of his parts though, those parts being the aforementioned late nightclub owner Peter Stringfellow, record producer Pete Waterman (who coincidentally loves trains), and even Alan Partridge.
Thankfully we are spared amazement over modern tech. Tony is a forward-looking entrepreneur and likely to be interested rather than phased by tablets, Gameboys and MySpace. Still, the larger-than-life, self-created stereotypes of northern club owners and ’70s musicians are so familiar to us that sometimes the movie’s versions of them take us out of the story. Roger (an unrecognisable Elwes in a curly ginger wig and big glasses) reminded me of Harry Enfield, with both he and Sheen at times channelling Fast Show parody DJs Smashy and Nicey.
There is pathos to Partridge though, and even to Smashy and Nicey, and certainly to Tony. Sheen is terrific; as Tony’s life crumbles over and over again, his desperation growing, he steers the man away from the clichés of bumptious flashy embarrassment, friendless and empty inside. Sue loves Tony for himself, and he quickly realises how much of his destructive behaviour has been in reaction to Roger’s actions, and vice versa. And while Last Train To Christmas feels too long and overly repetitive, writer-director Julian Kemp understands that the hard part for the Tonys and Rogers of the world is not recognising and understanding the mistakes they make, but escaping the cycle.
The troubling ease with which Tony moves between different carriages and lives also show how smoothly fortunes can be won and lost, the short jump from the late ’80s illusion of shiny baubles and champagne to destitution, or, worse, ending up a mainstay of Radio Trent. (It’s telling that when Tony Mk 1 finally manages to get that bubbly for the carriage that he promised at the start, what he eventually offers round is a rather stingy six tiny individual bottles. That version of Tony really is all talk.)
It can be hard to follow as nieces, sons, daughters, wives and girlfriends appear and disappear according to the different choices made. Most surprising is Roger, who begins the film a rather meek and unsuccessful sibling, apparently satisfied with a quiet life and steady job, but whose “other lives” show the risks and opportunities that stem from genuine musical talent, from hits and gorgeous girlfriends to loneliness and appalling self-destruction.
The outfits are a joy, particularly when they hit the ’70s and ’80s, from his adult daughter’s diagonally candy-striped dress to Tony’s teeny-tiny shiny white polyester shorts. They are perfectly complemented by the British Rail seats, which were presumably changed once a decade.
As we move forwards and backwards in time, the train moves from sun-dappled to cigarette smoke-filled, from carriages to compartments, with eventually the film itself moving into post-war black and white (with a classically melodramatic score to match). During these scenes Kemp maintains an equally melodramatic focus on the young, cherubic Tony that should be too over-the-top and yet somehow works. Last Train To Christmas is a preposterous idea, stretched into an overlong but ultimately moving tale. Yet it says something for the writing and performances that the most jarring element of this story is how many spare seats there are in a British Rail train at Christmas.
Last Train To Christmas is available on Sky
Read my article on the ending to Last Train To Christmas.
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