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The Railway Children Return

  • Film
  • 3 out of 5 stars
The Railway Children Return
Photograph: Jaap Buitendijk
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Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

This nostalgic sequel is a pleasant but meandering branch line journey lacking the force of the original

A mournful whistle, a man-shaped shadow emerging from clouds of steam, and the impossibly sweet elocution of Jenny Agutter calling out: ‘Daddy, my Daddy!’ It’s the tearjerker scene that made millions of families misty eyed 50 years ago – and made Agutter into a household name and face. The Railway Children Return doesn’t pack the power of the original, but it’s charming and sensitive stuff, with a few Easter eggs for old-school fans, and added thrills and issues for the next gen. 

This is not a remake of Edith Nesbit’s classic novel, on which Lionel Jeffries’ 1970s movie was based. The original ‘railway children’ were an immaculately dressed Edwardian trio, exiled to a Yorkshire village with their mother after they lose their house and money when their father is unjustly banged up for a crime he didn’t commit. 

Half a century later, the new trio are from bomb-weary Salford, evacuated to the same Yorkshire village to escape Hitler’s air attacks. They’re taken in by Agutter’s Bobbie – who brings her original character back as a suffragette grandmother, a nice nod to Nesbit who was a radical socialist – and her daughter, the local headmistress (Sheridan Smith). 

The plucky kids encounter bullies and kindness, and soon discover an injured Black teenage GI (Abe Atkins) who’s on the run from a local US military base: is he a coward or the victim of racists? 

The tougher, poorer Salford kids brush more closely to difficult issues than Nesbit’s gilded trio did: racism, bullying, family separation, poverty – but those issues, especially a very USA-based take on racism in a British classic – don’t always feel integral to the story. It’s as if the filmmakers set out with the best of intentions to make something less white, posh and talky – but also had to keep closely in touch with the original, quoting its tear-triggering music and misty visions of daddy – and were not quite able to create a fresh vehicle on its own tracks.

The ensemble of familiar faces and the slightly tenuous story give it the rhythm of Sunday night TV

The large ensemble of kindly and familiar faces, and the slightly tenuous story give this the rhythm of Sunday night TV. I enjoyed watching it and so did my seven-year-old son: he preferred it to the original because there were fewer pent-up feelings and more soldiers with guns. There’s a lot to like here, not least the scenery which is as green and pleasant as ever, especially in contrast to the filth and horror of the urban blitz. 

The performances which director Morgan Matthews elicits from the kids are lovely, especially Beau Gadsdon as the tough but vulnerable eldest kid, Lily, missing her father and protecting her little sibs, with sticks and stones if necessary. But this is a meandering, branch line journey which lacks the emotional force and direction of the original; it increasingly runs out of steam.

In UK cinemas Jul 15.

Written by
Caroline McGinn

Cast and crew

  • Director:Morgan Matthews
  • Screenwriter:Jemma Rodgers, Daniel Brocklehurst
  • Cast:
    • Sheridan Smith
    • Tom Courtenay
    • Jenny Agutter
    • John Bradley
    • Beau Gadsdon
    • Kenneth Aikens
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