Directed by Morgan Matthews.
Starring Jenny Agutter, Sheridan Smith, Tom Courtenay, Beau Gadsdon, KJ Aikens, Austin Haynes, Eden Hamilton, Zac Cudby, John Bradley, Hugh Quarshie, Oscar Wallwork, and Hannah Wood.
Follow a group of children evacuated to a Yorkshire village during the Second World War, where they encounter a young soldier who, like them, is far away from home.
Decades-later sequels are not unheard of, but Morgan Matthews (typically known as a documentary filmmaker, here working from a script by Daniel Brocklehurst) has gone back 50+ years for Railway Children (a.k.a. The Railway Children Return), his follow-up to writer/director Lionel Jeffries’ The Railway Children. It’s not just the length between the films that is surprising, but rather that this is not a franchise.
You would have to scour the entire earth to find even a few people clamoring for a sequel; the original (based on a novel by E. Nesbit) was a one-and-done look at the upended lives of innocent children forced to live in hiding near a railway station following suspicions that their father is a spy divulging secrets. None of this is necessarily a bad thing, but given that a movie has been plucked from relative mainstream obscurity and given the sequel treatment 52 years later, one would be led to believe that the result would have a far more distinctive vision and passion behind it. No one decides to embark on this as a sequel project looking for a cash-grab.
The upside is that Railway Children (a decidedly more safe version of the already family-friendly predecessor), now taking place during World War II, makes for a worthwhile tool to give a classroom of students a surface-level introduction to the consequences of signing up for war and fighting for one’s country, the era’s racism, the suffragette movement, and useful lessons on the benefits of transparency and honesty between adults and children.
Jenny Agutter returns as Roberta ‘Bobbie’ Waterbury, now running a foster home while living with her daughter Annie (Sheridan Smith) and young grandson Thomas (Austin Haynes). Railway Children wisely doesn’t make Bobbie the center of this sequel while also peppering in a few nods and references to its predecessor that slide naturally into the story underway. The family takes in sibling trio Lily (Beau Gadsdon, the eldest and instructed to be the mother for her younger sister and brother), Pattie (Eden Hamilton), and Ted (Zac Cudby), all sent off to the same railway station area by their mother to get them away from London, where bombs are repeatedly falling.
Everyone gets to know each other swimmingly, although it’s clear that these families have been dealt a different hand of cards in life, bubbling its way up as one of the unsubtle but worthwhile juxtapositions here. Both families have relatives in the war, although Thomas is shielded from those realities (even when the family is delivered news that his father is now a prisoner of war), whereas the temporary orphans are not afforded such a blissful ignorance, consistently dealing with life’s tragedies directly.
The group also encounters injured American soldier Abe (KJ Aikens), where Railway Children begins finding its identity. Abe claims he needs to catch a train to reunite with his squad while opening up about his slightly older brother, who also fought and was murdered in the war. He also claims to be 18, just like his deceased brother, although something is off about that statement. There is also a train station employee played by John Bradley (with an estimated five minutes of screen time) curious about the ways of intercepting and decoding enemy messages, which is amusingly used as a playfully brief means of teaching the titular railway children that fighting is not the only way to make a difference in wartime conflict.
Not lost on the filmmakers is how their superiors treated low-ranking black soldiers at the time, which is one of the heavier subjects the narrative explores. However, it’s just as quick to tie things up with a bow during the climax (which is also fair, considering this is a family film). It’s a shame the film chickens out, but there’s also more than enough here to stoke the interest of younger viewers, subsequently learning more elsewhere.
Otherwise, Railway Children is a lightweight and comforting film that is not afraid to address serious still relevant to modern-day life, boasting strong chemistry between the children.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]
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