It’s Christmas morning. You run downstairs and there, under the tree, you see it. Despite the wrapping you know that it’s the bicycle you asked for. You can make out the wheels, the handlebars, even the saddle. There’s nothing else it can be.
You’ve begged for it for months and now it’s yours. You tear it open and suddenly, amongst all the discarded wrapping paper, it turns out your bicycle is actually a drum kit. There is no way it should be a drum kit. You didn’t want a drum kit. You didn’t ask for a drum kit. And, until you got your hands on it, it looked nothing like a drum kit. Yet that’s what it is. Reluctantly you sit down, pick up the sticks, and give it a bash.
BOOM! You’re entranced, enthralled. You never even knew you wanted this, but it’s so much better than a bike. This is exhilarating, magical, the best Christmas gift ever! You forget you ever wanted anything else, and are grateful for what you’ve been given instead.
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Last Train to Christmas has nothing to do with drum kits, or bicycles for that matter. But then it has almost nothing to do with most Christmas TV either. Those who have seen the trailer or publicity shots may well be expecting a comedic, nostalgic romp through time full of hilarious haircuts and winking references. Instead we’re given one of the most exciting television treats we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy for years. Of course there are a few fun moments. An alternate timeline where Michael Portillo won the Conservative leadership race, making him Prime Minister? What better politician to choose for a story about trains? And walking into a train carriage from the 1970s, of course someone instantly chokes on the smokey fug. There’s retro chocolate bars, dated clothing, and a Woolworths poster, but that’s not what this story is about. It’s so much more than that.
The simplest word is ‘journey’. It’s also a word that any reviewer should be reluctant to type, due to the abuse and overuse that ‘journey’ has received. Every hopeful who fails on BGT, every celebrity voted out on Strictly, every sporting hopeful, Top Gear special, and chart success pulls out the journey metaphor the second a mic is pointed at them. Yet here we see that concept mined for all it’s worth.
There’s the obvious physical journey that takes place on the train, as well as the one through time, yet where most films finish, here it’s just the beginning. We’re also faced with the journey through cinema, as styles of different eras are lovingly recreated, from film stock style and aspect ratio to soundtrack choice and visual effects. Film buffs will rub their hands with glee at every scene dissolve and angle choice. Of course we have the personal journey faced by the main character, Tony Towers, played – for the most part – by Michael Sheen, but that is perhaps less important than the journey we go on with him.
Almost the entire movie takes place in real time, with only one break. This is exhausting to watch. Coupled with the claustrophobia of being shot within train carriages, this is not an easy movie. It’s almost a test of stamina for the viewer. From the very beginning we have a knot in our stomach, something doesn’t feel right. We’re forced to leave our expectations behind as characters who should be being played for laughs aren’t. The amusing tropes we’re used to seeing are all present, but something isn’t quite right, a discordant note that disorientates from the start and makes us work all the way through. By the end, we’re just as exhausted as Tony.
Another overly simplistic approach might be to talk about Last Train to Christmas as some kind of A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life mash-up. It’s not. Though all three stories deal with the protagonist realising the impact their life has had on the world around them, that doesn’t mean they have the same goals. Scrooge learns to change the way he lives. George Bailey learns to appreciate the life he has. Tony Towers… Tony’s story and decisions are part of that journey mentioned earlier. This leads us to the main issue with writing this review. If, as the saying goes, it’s all about the journey and not the destination, how does one talk about what happens without ruining the whole point of it?
Suffice it to say that the cast are superb. Scenes that should make us laugh are instead wrung for every drop of pathos they contain. Though Sheen will no doubt receive much well deserved praise, Cary Elwes as Roger Towers manages to match him punch for punch, giving reason and power to every decision Tony makes. Though brilliantly supported throughout, without these two this production would be a quirky novelty. With them, it’s gold dust.
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This is a brave, twisted, deeply emotional and thoroughly unique Christmas tale. Writer and director Julian Kemp, Sky Studios, and everyone involved in the commissioning and creation of Last Train to Christmas should be applauded for bringing something so different to our screens. Christmas is a time of ritual and traditions. Nowhere is this more reflected than the TV schedules, and considering the church has been doing the same for quite a while that’s saying something. Yet, for a change, a Christmas audience isn’t being pandered to; we’re being challenged. It’s a bold choice, almost a gamble as Last Train to Christmas will leave many with unanswered questions. But remember, it’s the journey that counts.
Last Train to Christmas releases on Sky Cinema and streaming service NOW on 18th December.