Marlborough Express - The Saturday Express, Marlborough
Spiritual sequel a smart, sassy update
The Railway Children Return
Directed by Morgan Matthews ★★★★
longside Kes, Oliver! and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, it was part of a fertile period of family-friendly British moviemaking.
A winning adaptation of a beloved 1906 book that had already been the subject of a radio play and three television versions.
The 1970 film The Railway Children not only made a star out of a young Jenny Agutter, it also made a tidy profit and has only grown in stature, as the generation who first watched it share it with their children and grandchildren.
Set almost four decades later in the same area of rural Yorkshire as the original, this spiritual sequel is a smart, sassy update that benefits massively from strong production values and a seriously impressive cast.
In truth, its title is more of a millstone than a selling point. Other than its geographical base and conceit of city children having to relocate to the countryside, the film’s only other real link to Lionel Jeffries’ movie (and E Nesbit’s source material) is Agutter’s ‘‘Bobbie’’. This could have quite happily been a rollicking wartime tale of teen and tween-age derring-do, without trying to sell it as part of some kind of franchise.
Our ‘‘heroes’’ are siblings Lily (Beau Gadsdon), Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and Ted Watts (Zac Cudby). Like thousands of other children, as World War II enters its fifth year, they’ve been sent away from the increasing danger of German bombing raids by their parents.
However, after an eventful train journey (which included an unscheduled toilet stop and illicit chocolate) to Oakworth, the trio find themselves unwanted by the local families. It’s only when schoolmistress Anne (Sheridan Smith) and her mother (Agutter’s Bobbie) take pity on them that they find a home open to them.
Fortunately, they seem to have struck gold. While others opine about flatulent ‘‘mums’’ and ‘‘grandads who pick their toes’’, their hosts and ‘‘new sibling’’ Thomas (Austin Hayes) have no such quirks. He’s also up for an adventure, introducing them to his secret railyard hideout, where he ‘‘keeps watch of suspicious enemy activity’’.
To their surprise though, they arrive one day to find it already occupied. But while Thomas is convinced their interloper is a Germany spy, he soon reveals himself to be an American soldier. Abraham McCarthy (KJ Aikens) is hiding out from the authorities though, the Black teen having had enough of the abuse he’s suffered at the hands of his own comrades. Desperate to help, Thomas and Watts try to hatch a plan to help him escape to Liverpool. However, it will require plenty of courage – and good slice of luck – to pull it off.
While there will be some out there appalled with the ‘‘woke’’ sensibilities of Danny Brocklehurst (TV’s Ordinary Lives, The Five) and first-time screenwriter Jemma Rodgers’ tale (sexist and racist attitudes, not the Luftwaffe, are the biggest threats here), it actually results in a more entertaining and engaging flick than the initial setting suggests.
With its light touch on serious issues, it reminds one of an extended episode of Agutter’s more recent regular employment – TV’s Call the Midwife. If you’re a fan of that show’s sensibilities and brand of British drama (but without the wimples and stirrups), then you’re gonna love this.
Casting helps sell the story immensely, with a decent crop of moppets (headed by a terrific turn by The Crown’s young Princess Margaret, Gadsdon) joined by veterans with gravitas like the always reliable Smith (Cilla, Hysteria), Agutter and
Tom Courtenay (45 Years).
❚ The Railway Children Return is screening in select cinemas nationwide.