The Railway Children Return review: A charming update on a beloved classic
This sequel feels a little like a TV film – but still contains more than enough heart, humour, and spirited performances.
In the history of British cinema, few family films have earned a reputation quite as glowing as The Railway Children. Lionel Jeffries's 1970 adaptation of E Nesbit's novel – which is being re-released in UK cinemas for one day only ahead of the sequel's debut – remains a thoroughly endearing watch more than half a century on from its release, full of iconic moments, delightful performances, and a profound understanding of both childhood wonder and the coming of age process.
The Railway Children Return, then, has a lot to live up to when it arrives in cinemas on Friday 15th July 2022 – and to be frank, it was always going to be an almost impossible task to recreate the magic of that earlier adventure. It's therefore not too much of a surprise that the rather twee new film, directed by Morgan Matthews, is not of the same calibre as its beloved predecessor – feeling more like a television film than something truly cinematic.
And yet to discount it entirely would be to sell it short: the film contains more than enough heart, humour, and spirited performances from its young cast to prove a charming update on the original, while also tackling some interesting themes that will resonate with today's audiences in different ways.
Call the Midwife star Jenny Agutter – the standout performer of the previous film – is the one cast member to reprise her role, starring as an adult version of Bobbie, who is still living in Oakworth and now has a family of her own. There are some nice reflective throwbacks to the original through Agutter's character, but Bobbie spends the majority of the film as a fairly background figure, with the baton passed on to a new group of kids in her stead.
Three of those kids – Beau Gadsdon, Eden Hamilton, and Zac Cudby – star as siblings Lily, Pattie and Ted, who we find at the start of the film tearfully boarding a train that will take them away from their mother and their Salford home. We're in 1944, forty years on from the original film, and the kids are some of the many evacuees forced to move to the countryside to ensure their safety – eventually arriving at Oakworth Station where they are taken in by Bobbie's adult daughter Annie (Sheridan Smith).
An early scene on their journey gives a nice indication as to the sort of territory we're in. With Zac desperately needing the toilet, his eldest sister Lily must find a way to bring the train to a standstill, and after failing to talk the conductor into putting the breaks on, she takes matters into her own hands and forces an emergency stop. This early scene serves the dual purpose of establishing the kids' resourcefulness right from the off and providing some early comic relief to get the young viewers on side.
That comic relief is constant throughout, with much of it coming from Game of Thrones star John Bradley, in the Bernard Cribbins role as a clumsy station master, while elsewhere there's a strong performance from Austin Haynes as Annie's son – who eventually forms a bond with the evacuees despite initial reservations – and an enjoyable appearance from the reliably brilliant Tom Courtenay as Uncle Walter (complete with a Winston Churchill impersonation).
Meanwhile, the script – written by Brassic co-creator Daniel Brocklehurst – hits many of the same beats as the original, adeptly moving between playful hijinks and sincere emotion, sometimes in the very same scene, best summed up by one standout sequence that sees Annie receieve an ominous telegram while the kids continue a chaotic food fight.
But where The Railway Children Return does offer something entirely different is in its wrestling with themes unexplored by the first film. The main narrative thrust for the second half of the movie concerns the kids' encounter with Abe, a young black American solider played by Kenneth Aikens, who is hiding as much from his own men as he is from the enemy. This plotline is handed sensitively, and even if the film strays a little too far towards the mawkish in its closing stages, it helps to ensure that this is still a sequel worth tuning in for.
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