What to Watch Verdict
The Railway Children tries hard but, compared to the original, runs out of steam quite quickly.
Warm-hearted and feel good
Appealing ensemble cast
Over-relies on the 1970 version
Can’t re-capture the magic of the first film
It’s the classic children's novel from the 1900s that became a cinematic family favorite in the 1970s. Originally published in 1906, E Nesbit’s The Railway Children was a regular on the small and big screen until Lionel Jeffries’ 1970 adaptation captured the hearts of the nation with a final scene that reduced audiences to blubbing wrecks.
But more than 50 years later, and with a whole new generation to watch it, we have a sequel. The Railway Children Return. One with its feet so firmly planted in the original that whether you’ve seen it — or not — will dictate your response.
It’s the latter half of WWII and, with the Germans bombing regional cities, three children — the eldest, Lily (Beau Gadsdon), with sister Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and little brother Ted (Zac Cudby) — are evacuated from Manchester to live in the Yorkshire village of Oakworth. They travel by train, of course, and find a home with the local school’s head teacher Annie (Sheridan Smith), her son Thomas (Austin Haynes) and her mother Bobbie (Jenny Agutter).
Despite bullying at the hands of local boys, the children settle in and start exploring the surrounding countryside. Hiding in the station railyard, they discover an injured GI, Abe (K J Aikens) who is on the run from the nearby American airbase. Labeled a coward and wanted for desertion, he willingly accepts help from the children, who set out to prove his innocence and get him to safety.
From a storyline that echoes other titles from Whistle Down The Wind (1961) to Summerland (2020) to the literal return of Jenny Agutter’s Bobbie (the role she played in 1970), there’s a powerful sense of the familiar running through the film.
The fathers and daughters theme so central to the first one gets another airing, with several near re-runs of that tear-inducing scene, complete with the obligatory train smoke. Even if the dialogue isn’t quite the same, the reference is clear, especially when strains of the original’s theme music rise up in the background. It’s designed to bring a lump to your throat and it will — but only if you get the reference in the first place. And, of course, trains are crucial in the plan to help Abe. More specifically, stopping one in its tracks to plead his case with a senior officer. The echoes get louder as the film chugs along.
But if you don’t hear them, The Railway Children Return stands up well enough on its own as a squeaky clean wartime family drama and one that makes an effort to be relevant to its newer audience. Bullying, the pain of family separation and racism are just as much issues now as they were then, but director Morgan Matthews and his team shy away just a little too much from exploring them in any great depth, keeping the tone gentler than it actually needs to be. They do, however, get nice performances from the young members of the cast at the center of the story and, together with the older, more experienced actors, including a near-cameo from Tom Courtenay, it makes for an appealing ensemble.
But that 52-year gap between the original and this follow-up, plus the soft tone, prompts an inevitable question. Who’s it for? In theory, it's for a family audience but, in truth, it’s too talky for youngsters and their parents may not remember the first one. Credit to the distributors, StudioCanal, for trying to fill the gap by re-releasing the original in cinemas this month.
But, despite their efforts and those of the film itself to appeal to a new generation, it’s the grandparents who are most likely to want to see it, enjoy the nostalgia and welcome Agutter back onto the screen. Maybe they’ll take the younger members of the family with them.
The film almost bends over backward to re-create the magic and charm of the original, but it slips through its fingers and the sense of trying too hard just makes it even more apparent. The wholesome values and the beauty of the Yorkshire landscape make it a likable and generous feel-good story, but it’s so rooted in the original as to be unable to escape it. Nor does it seem to want to.
The Railway Children Return is released in cinemas on Friday, 15 July (see our new movies in 2022 guide for more films to enjoy).
Freda can't remember a time when she didn't love films, so it's no surprise that her natural habitat is a darkened room in front of a big screen. She started writing about all things movies about eight years ago and, as well as being a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic, is a regular voice on local radio on her favorite subject.
While she finds time to watch TV as well — her tastes range from Bake Off to Ozark — films always come first. Favourite film? The Third Man. Top ten? That's a big and complicated question .....!