The Christmas Train (2017)

The Christmas Train is a TV movie based on a novel by David Baldacci released through Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. The story is centered around a former couple, both writers, who bump into each other while traveling across the country. One is working on a movie script for a Hollywood director who's more or less adopted her, and the other is a journalist looking for a story. The movie includes numerous other quirky characters who are also traveling by train and is an exceptionally good...

Wait. Hold on. I need to check my notes, because something feels off. Okay, yes. The words, "Hallmark" and "good" both appear on this pad of paper, which...

Hold on a minute. These things can be good?!!! Then why the hell have we been sitting through bland, lazy romantic comedies this whole time? No one told me Hallmark was actually capable of putting out good movies!

Okay. Let's get back to the movie, which - again - is good. A good Hallmark TV movie. About people reconnecting on a train that's repeatedly referred to wistfully as "The Christmas Train." I don't understand what's happening here, either.

What I do understand is this movie should have a *SPOILER WARNING.* Yes, you read that right. There are things in this film that deserve to be seen unspoiled, so if you like romcoms - Hallmark or otherwise - consider watching this before reading on.

The two leads are Tom and Eleanor. Tom's a reporter traveling to LA to break it off with his current long-distance girlfriend. Eleanor is traveling with Max, an aging director played by Danny Glover, in order to brainstorm ideas for a script. Also of note is Agnes, an eccentric and nosey woman who inexplicably seems to live on the train, played by Joan Cusack. There's also a psychic, a couple planning to elope, an old man who just lost his wife of 40 years, and a host of other passengers with weird skills and backstories.

Perhaps because this was developed for Movies & Mysteries, there's a mystery tossed in, as well. Items of personal significance go missing around the train. Aside from the eloping couple's wedding rings, nothing of any substantial monetary value is taken, but most of the main characters lose something of sentimental importance. Fortunately for the young couple, Tom has a couple spare wedding rings lying around from when he was going to propose to Eleanor before...

Look, the movie's good, but the backstory is pretty by-the-numbers. This is one of those stories of "true love" but broke up due to a misunderstanding, and now fate is magically bringing them back together against all odds right in time for the holidays. Will they be able to accept that they're meant to be together, or will they just drift apart once again?

To the movie's credit, it does a far better job playing with this dynamic than you'd expect. Tom and Eleanor are believably conflicted and understandably skeptical. They can see how easy it would be to just buy into the narrative, but a lifetime of experience has taught them better. Just because things seem magical, doesn't mean they are.

Or so they think. But it turns out the psychic's a little too good to be guessing. She warns Tom he's about to get a surprise he might not like, then Tom's girlfriend boards at the next station as a surprise. While he was planning to break up, it turns out she wants to get married. The psychic is also able to divine specific details of Eleanor and Tom's past by touching a scarf. They start to believe.

Meanwhile, they help the young couple overcome uncertainty and opposition from their families. Tom and Eleanor convince them they belong together, and they have a massive wedding at a train stop, officiated by Max.

Tom finally breaks it off with his girlfriend, who's briefly mad but ultimately seems more interested in landing a role in Max's next movie. Around this time, the train gets stranded by an avalanche in the mountains on Christmas Eve. They've got enough fuel to keep the generators going for a while, but there's concern help won't find them in time. So Tom and Eleanor head out on Christmas day to look for help, which they find pretty easily. But they also work through their relationship on the way.

The mysteries all unravel fairly quickly. At first, Tom suspects Agnes as the thief, as she always seems to be poking her nose in everyone's business and snooping around personal possessions. But it turns out that's because she's secretly a marshal assigned to the train, which... actually makes a ton of sense. Well played! The thief is actually the grieving widower, who was briefly regressing to a criminal past he'd abandoned when he married four decades earlier. By then he's already anonymously returned the goods, so Tom convinces Agnes not to arrest him.

Everyone arrives in LA, happily ever after. Except... there's a twist.

Tom and Eleanor stumble across a stack of papers in a waste bin in Max's car containing a script, similar to the one Eleanor thought she was supposed to be writing. Only this script is essentially the script to the movie we've been watching (or at least large sections). They confront Max, who's all too happy to explain that all the fate, magic, and coincidences were manufactured. Max had arranged for Eleanor and Tom to be on the train together, he'd hired actors to play the young couple and the psychic, and he even brought in Tom's current girlfriend to fake wanting to get married. The avalanche was real, though, as were most of the other characters.

Does any of that actually make sense in the context of the story? Eh... kind of? There were numerous hints peppered throughout that at the time felt like hints or red herrings connected to the missing items subplot. Everything the psychic knew can easily be explained by Max providing her the information. And the circumstances bringing Tom to the train in search of a story were just blurry enough you can almost buy that Max orchestrated his presence in order to help Eleanor reconnect with her one true love.

It admittedly gets absurd around his then-girlfriend agreeing to all this, but I'm willing to give them a pass, if for no other reason than the ending works as an indictment of Christmas romcoms built around fairytale notions of fate and magic manufactured by Hollywood in general and Hallmark in particular. It's a nice little subversion of the genre that makes for a resolution more interesting than the usual wrap up.

Of course no one's really mad, Tom and Eleanor are mostly just happy to have found each other again, and so on. This all gets resolved a little too quickly and easily, and I'd prefer if it didn't completely revert back to the clichés it just subverted, but it's still a fun twist.

That's not why the movie's good, however. It makes for a fun surprise, but the real selling point here is the dialogue. While there are a handful of overly sentimental moments, the vast majority of scenes are sweet and genuinely funny, which is also a rarity in this subgenre. I actually liked the characters, and that's not something I can say of the vast majority of Hallmark (or Hallmark knock-off) romcoms I've seen. In short, this is an enjoyable movie to watch, and that's before you remember Danny Glover and Joan Cusack show up every few minutes to make it even better.

On top of that, the movie's willing to push the limits Hallmark usually imposes on these things. For example, while Christmas is nearly universal, it's not always a welcome force; occasionally, it's presented as a nuisance to the characters and - at least to some degree - to the viewer. More importantly, this is willing to push its characters a little emotionally. Too often, relationship issues in these movies are trivial and absurd, but this time... I kind of bought into the drama, at least for the main characters. And it turned out the ridiculous subplot around minor characters struggling with one of their parents threatening to disown him if he married beneath his station was quite literally fiction. I really do like that touch.

And speaking of playing with expectations...

Tom's girlfriend is cast and introduced the way these movies would typically introduce a villainous rival. But instead of acting this way, she turns out to be a good person. She's kind and giving when the train's stuck (everyone is), and she certainly never tries to sabotage Tom and Eleanor, even setting the end reveal aside. But the touch I really appreciate comes at the end when she asks Eleanor to write her a good part, preferably as a villain, in the next movie. Chef's kiss.

This isn't without flaws, of course. The score is mainly generic Christmas music, which doesn't work with the story on screen. And the movie would have been even better if characters stopped referring to the train as "The Christmas Train," as if that means anything. But these are kind of trivial problems in a movie that is actually shockingly good.

To be clear, I'm not grading on a curve when I say that. This isn't just good for Hallmark: this is a genuinely good, enjoyable movie, that can honestly hold its own against theatrically released, big-budget romantic comedies. I absolutely recommend it to fans of the genre, particularly ones who enjoy the ways it plays with and subverts conventions.