Last Train to Christmas is an intriguing concept, one of time-travelling alternative realities for Michael Sheen’s Tony Towers as he embarks on the 3:17pm St Pancreas to Nottingham train. Whilst Tony’s originally in 1985, and in good spirits with his quaffed 80s bouffant -haircut and fiancé Sue (Nathalie Emmanuel) as they travel to a Christmas family gathering, he heads off to the buffet cart to get ‘champagne for all!’ but as the sliding door between the carriages closes, he’s moved into a different decade but doesn’t know it yet… and so the travels through time begin.
Writer/Director Julian Kemp delves in a notion we’ve seen before in the likes of Groundhog Dog, and aptly Sliding Doors, not to forget the timeless duo of It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol, but this is a new flip on the fable and it’s curiously addictive to see how it all turns out. Sheen’s Tony isn’t dislikeable but he’s not always fully agreeable to begin with, and this is fundamentally important to hold that balance. Tony’s life has clearly always been about him, and though he does love those around him, his own personal greed may have pushed others aside on his way to try and find success.
His counterbalance in his desire for victory is his brother Roger (Cary Elwes), a less flaunting type and seemingly good natured. I’ll be honest, I didn’t recognise it was Elwes for ages, he embraces his part as he drifts from family man, to drunk, to losing his own reality related to decisions that Tony makes between carriages. As the switches in time and life twist and turn, there are secrets beneath the surface to be revealed, and they’ll unravel down the line.
Tony’s journey, both literal and metaphorical, will then speed by as fast as the train he’s on, as we witness Tony trying to put right things he might have done wrong. Of course, every action has an equal and opposite reaction and so if he sees a reality he didn’t like, or thought he can improve, he runs to another carriage but ends up making things worse – and the race is on to discover if he’ll make everything okay by the time he gets to Nottingham, which gets ever closer, it’s complex work to keep cohesive but I think Writer/Director Kemp just gets it right.
Michael Sheen is on camera throughout, his multiple representations of the various Tony Towers over the decades is as special as you’d expect from him. From being the life and soul of the party, to being a broken man and everything in between, Sheen has it covered and with a whole ensemble worth of wigs and styles. And yes, absolutely, his performances outshine the distinct looks he goes through. In truth, it’s an epic piece of character work, showing us once again how good this man is.
The set and design team must get a huge congratulations to, they’ve clearly gone out of their way to recreate each decade to feel as realistic as possible. When you team this up with each shift in time being filmed as it might have been in that era, and the most varied, stellar work from prosthetic and make-up teams to get Sheen looking the part, or the different Time-Tony of the era, well, it’s incredible work really.
By the end? Last Train to Christmas is a unique piece of work that does have its moments of being a little too off-kilter but with Sheen at the centre, it retains that vital poignant warmth that keeps you caring and eager to know the ending before their final destination.