The Railway Children Return – Film Review
by Brian Merriman
Director: Morgan Matthews
Writers: Daniel Brocklehurst and Jemma Rodgers
Stars: Sheridan Smith, Jenny Agutter, John Bradley, Beau Gadsdon, Kenneth Aikens
Duration: 98 minutes
I was thinking of the renowned British actor Jenny Agutter (currently in Call the Midwife) who successfully transitioned from child to adult on our stages and screens over the past five decades, on my way into this film. One of her early successes was in ‘The Railway Children’, a 1970 British family drama film based on the 1906 novel by E. Nesbit. This followed her role as Bobbi in the 1968 TV series of ‘The Railway Children’. Obviously, Nesbit hadn’t experienced any world wars when he wrote the book in 1906, so this later iteration adapts the circumstances for the planting of ‘city children’ with strangers in the country. As we view this current tale against the tragic backdrop of women and children arriving in Ireland to flee war in Ukraine – there is a poignant account of the effects of war, especially on children, which resonates.
Imagine my delight when Agutter pops up almost immediately in this delightful sequel and retains the name of Bobbi – now a Grandmother? That was the first indication that Brocklehurst and Rodgers’ treatment of ‘The Railway Children Return’ would be a nostalgic, beautifully interpreted and shot (director Matthews) and lusciously scored (Edward Farmer and Martin Phipps) sentimental treat. The creative team was well aided by a stellar cast peppered with established big British names (Tom Courteney and Sheridan Smith who join Agutter in the central Waterbury family) and bright young debuts.
The ‘Return’ teases out issues of race and authenticity, especially in relation to the values of the children, though the rural setting was certainly one of ‘full and plenty’ in this ration ridden society.
Set against the evacuation of the bombings of Salford in 1944, when Mothers made the difficult choice of parting with their children from the rubbled cities for the relative sanctuary and nourishment of the country. The evacuee scheme also frees up these Mothers to have no draws on their time, other than the ‘war effort’ in workplaces totally dependent on female labour and the toil of elderly men. The intergenerational value is well documented in the plot and the notion that any society ‘returned to normal’ after this sea change in working life is still somewhat baffling.
The child stars are as impactful and talented in this version as I recall in the original. Beau Gadsdon transfixes the camera as a strong, intelligent and determined ‘Lily’. Kenneth Aikens’ honest articulation as ‘Abe’ ensures these young stars truly shine in a beautiful duet of studies of strength and vulnerability. They are ‘ones to watch’ and will both no doubt continue on the road that brought Agutter over five decades of artistic achievements on stage and screen. The children’s ensemble was first class and ably supported by a spirited dynamo ‘Patty’ (Eden Hamilton) and an energetic Ted (Zac Cudby) who delivers one of the best lines in the script (about his name) with panache. Austin Haynes (Thomas) was straight out of a ‘Just William’ book and perfectly pitched throughout.
You won’t need to have seen or read the original novel or films as this story stands on its own, but there is somewhat of a missed opportunity in connecting Bobbi’s story to Lily’s brave actions. It deserved more explanation than what was implied at the dinner table. The reference allowed here would be lost on those unfamiliar with the original.
‘The Railway Children Return’ is nostalgic and beautifully staged in almost halcyon settings despite the troubled times. Its contemporary edge lies in the sense of value the children have for honesty, the diversity of key casting and in its exposure of racism in the armed forces. The final scene with the General is a little underdeveloped, prudent and somewhat pulls the opportunity to finally lay bare the real social issues that underscore the plot, well enunciated up to that point. I’m not convinced ‘Lily’ would have held back as she did.
Courteney’s wise old Uncle role says that the family wanted to protect and ensure a ‘carefree childhood’, but as there is ‘evil in the world’, equally he advises that we must not forget that there are many ‘who want to fight that evil’.
‘The Return of the Railway Children’ is a timely, and sentimental reminder, of the challenges facing the current generations. A classic British period drama that tugs the heartstrings while packing a punch. Well worth seeing by young and old alike.