The Plot: England, 1944. While WWII rages on, teenager Lily (Beau Gadsdon) and her two younger siblings Ted (Zac Cudby) and Pattie (Eden Hamilton) are packed off to the safer surroundings of the countryside. They’re watched over by Bobbie (Jenny Agutter) and her schoolteacher daughter (Sheridan Smith). As they adjust to their temporary home and play around, they come across injured American soldier Abe (Kenneth Aikens), who is nervous about his situation and claims to be on a secret mission. As they soon discover, they all have a shared experience and help Abe to find his way home…
The Verdict: Following up a much-loved family classic and a staple of Bank Holiday television is always going to be fraught with potential danger. Go too much in a modern direction and it resembles less of the original and could be regarded as disrespectful. Go too far back and it becomes too quaint and stuffy. In a summer of franchise sequels and squeaky, yellow pill-shaped blobs, The Railway Children Return is therefore something of a breath of fresh country air – in the cinema, that is. A sequel of sorts to the 1970 original, it brings in a new bunch of railway children who have their own spiffing adventure but also gains considerable credibility by bringing back the Jenny Agutter as Bobbie (no Sally Thomsett or Bernard Cribbins sadly, though both are still chugging along). It also adds in a sub-plot involving an African-American soldier that they have to hide from less well-meaning adults, recalling another British family classic in Whistle Down The Wind.
Keeping in spirit to the original story by Edith Nesbit and its cinematic predecessor, the new film written by Daniel Brocklehurst and Jemma Rodgers retains a period setting and also focuses on a trio of children with an absent father figure. Moving the story forward in time – but not too far – lends it a sombre air of wartime missing parenthood. Lily’s mother tells her as much in the opening scenes, saying that Lily is the parent of her younger siblings now. She’ll have to grow up that bit quicker. The writers have found an ideal place and time to settle the story, with accidental modern parallels to what is going on in the world right now. The script leans a bit more towards incident than character, so the trio of children are under-developed as a result. Though, the decent young actors playing them do compensate with spirited performances and work well with their elders too, including Tom Courtenay in a small but narratively important role.
For a film that outwardly appears to be a family film and a jolly drink of nostalgia juice for parents who grew up on the original, there are some unexpected themes that are layered into the film. The ugly face of racism in the US Army for example – even far from home. There are also questions about where does childhood stop and adulthood start, in relation to helping out with the war effort. Let children be children as long as they can does seem to be an undercurrent running through, which elevates the film above a simple shake-and-bake knock-off. Shot in and around the same locations as its predecessor, The Railway Children Return has an air of gentle, amiable respectability about it. It doesn’t tarnish the original film or try to outmatch it, which wouldn’t have been a wise move anyway. It comfortably co-exists with the original but has its own voice. For now, that’s enough to keep it on track, on time (98 minutes is just right) and deliver the goods to movie-hungry families looking for something that doesn’t rely heavily on visual effects (none required for the still luminous Agutter). All aboard!
Rating: 3.5 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
The Railway Children
Keeps on track
The Railway Children Return (UK / PG / 98 mins)
In short: Keeps on track
Directed by Morgan Matthews.
Starring Beau Gadsdon, Zac Cudby, Eden Hamilton, Jenny Agutter, Sheridan Smith, John Bradley.