Last Train to Christmas – Michael Sheen adds gloss to Sliding Doors-style comedy
Is there name yet for the genre of stories in which a character goes through multiple realities, made magically accessible without any proper science-fiction explanation, in order to learn some kind of life lesson? Let’s call them mystical multiverse tales. It’s a particularly popular plot mechanism in movies these days, although you can trace it back to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and then on through Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life, Groundhog Day, Sliding Doors and beyond.
This British comedy-drama is squarely embedded in the mystical multiverse tradition, with its flawed but essentially likable central character – in this case Michael Sheen’s Nottingham-bred wideboy Tony Towers, who discovers one Christmas Eve that he can experience the forking paths his life might have taken by shifting from one carriage to another on a homeward-bound train. The story starts in 1985, when Tony is a fortysomething nightclub owner with a massive Peter Stringfellow-style blond mullet. He’s accompanied on the trip back to see his elderly parents by his nice girlfriend Sue (Nathalie Emmanuel) and his younger brother Roger (Cary Elwes under serious ginger wigs), who is less successful than Tony but is at least happily married to Astrid (Anna Lundberg).
But when Tony moves into the next carriage, suddenly his clothes, and hairstyle change and he no longer has his train ticket in his wallet. He makes small decisions, like to open one club rather than six and to give Roger a bigger share of the joint business; when he moves to another train carriage everything changes again. Sometimes we go deep into the past and see the characters played by younger actors and learn about the childhood traumas and events that shaped them. By the end we catch up with Tony in our present day, older and presumably wiser.
It’s a pretty high concept posited by writer-director Julian Kemp, made even weirder by the way Sheen’s Tony just sort of rolls with it all, swiftly working out how to tinker with his futures in order to either benefit himself or save loved ones from ruin. But Sheen is an engaging enough actor to pull it off, gurning and goofing around to keep from being upstaged by the procession of well-observed, period-accurate but ridiculously over-the-top costumes, from the Tony Wilson-style sharp-suit-no-tie-fully-buttoned-shirt look, to a blazer the colour of candy floss.
And then, by slow degrees, he brings a tender sort of sadness to the story, full of wistful regrets and zen resignation to the contingencies of fate. Props are also due to the production design team, who sourced all the different moquette upholstery fabrics for the train seats that mark the different eras as the story develops.
Last Train to Christmas is available on 18 December on Sky Cinema and NOW.