VOD film review: Last Train to Christmas
James R | On 20, Dec 2021
Director: Justin Kemp
Cast: Michael Sheen, Nathalie Emmanuel, Cary Elwes
Is there anything Michael Sheen can’t do? Last Train to Christmas is a good litmus test, as it takes a vaguely familiar high concept and relies on him to pull it off. He stars as Tony Towers, a nightclub owner who finds his train home taking several unexpected detours after he releases that moving between each carriage lets him travel through time.
The result plays out like a mix between A Christmas Carol and Sliding Doors, as Tony tries to change things for the better, with each decision opening up another fork in the track and taking him farther away from his intended destination. So far, so Groundhog Day boards British Rail, and Michael Sheen is fantastic in the lead role. Sporting a Peter Stringfellow-esque mullet, he’s at once a cheesy relic and a swinging star, swaggering through the 1980s with a cocksure confidence that’s at once arrogant and amusing.
But before he can ride his train home to Nottingham, he steps one carriage along and finds himself with a different wallet without a ticket – and that’s just the start of several more seismic changes, from whether he’s in a relationship with his girlfriend, Sue (Nathalie Emmanuel), to whether he’s penniless and bankrupt or washed up and recording a terrible advert cashing in on his reputation. Sheen gradually peels back the layers of Tony’s insecurities, hopes and fears with an understated, heartfelt charisma that’s concealed beneath immaculate costumes and make-up – from garish blazers to shorts that are far too short. The decor of the train, too, morphs to match the time period, from red tartan to green and yellow seats, not to mention the Game Boys and cassette tapes being wielded by the other passengers.
The problem is that the script struggles to keep finding depth in the same repeat journey, and the lengthy runtime sometimes feels more like a rail replacement bus than a direct journey. We know that festive tradition dictates this geezer will come good to some degree in the end, and that recognisable structure puts the brakes on some of the emotion and humour on offer.
But before Last Train to Christmas can get stuck in a sidings, conductor Julian Kemp (on writing and directing duties) switches things up by changing focus from Tony to his brother, Roger (an unrecognisable Cary Elwes). Rather than simply tell a straight tale of redemption, what unfolds is an unexpectedly dark and melancholic story of feuding siblings, and we go all the way back to their childhood to understand the creative dynamic and familiar tension that sits unspoken between them. The more the route diverts into such surprising territory, the richer its rewards become. It brings a surprisingly tender, poignant note to what could have been a forgettable, flimsy journey – and, of course, provides a showcase for just how chameleonic Michael Sheen can be. It may be no trip to Palm Springs, but Last Train to Christmas is still worth hopping aboard.