The Railway Children Return, review: why give a British classic an American racism theme?

·4 min read
Jenny Agutter (r) returns, with Austin Haynes (2r) a new addition, in this Railway Children sequel - Japp Buitendijk
Jenny Agutter (r) returns, with Austin Haynes (2r) a new addition, in this Railway Children sequel - Japp Buitendijk

The 1970 adaptation of The Railway Children is one of the truest delights in all British cinema: it’s also a rare case of a classic built on a classic. Lionel Jeffries’s film didn’t simply do justice to Edith Nesbit’s 1905 novel, it lifted its pages with a freshening breeze. Yes, the plot was modest – essentially, three children from Edwardian London adapt to a less privileged new life in the Yorkshire countryside – but Jeffries captured through it a child’s-eye-view of the world with a delicacy and warmth few others have matched. From the mysterious exiled Russian dissident to that strange landslide, with trees supernaturally marching down the embankment, it made ordinary life feel like a story you could bury yourself in – an adventure to be relished page by page.

All of this is to say that The Railway Children is more than a heritage brand: if you pin the title to a script, it needs more than a railway and some children to be a good fit. And this Second World War-set sequel differs from the Jeffries film in a few notable respects. For one thing, it has a villain. For another, that villain is the United States Military Police.

For reasons that must have made sense at some point during the last four years, The Railway Children Return revolves around a group of plucky evacuees thwarting institutionalised racism in the American armed forces – a bit of a change of pace from pushing a pram door-to-door, collecting birthday presents for Bernard Cribbins. The doors themselves are the same, though: like its predecessor, the film was shot in and around the West Yorkshire villages of Haworth and Oakworth, whose streets remain instantly recognisable more than half a century on.

They’re the new home of Manchester siblings Lily (Beau Gadsdon), Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and Ted (Zac Cudby), who are sent to the country by their mother in 1944, as German bombs pound the industrial northwest. On arrival, this spirited trio are taken in by Jenny Agutter’s Bobbie Waterbury – now an indomitable grandmother – and her schoolmistress daughter, Annie (Sheridan Smith).

While playing in the sidings with Annie’s son Thomas (Austin Haynes), the children discover a runaway: his name is Abe (Kenneth Aikens), and he’s a young black American soldier, who fled his post after being beaten viciously by racist Military Police Officers from his own regiment. (A similar incident, which became known as the Battle of Bamber Bridge, did take place in Lancashire in 1943.) So the kids band together to transport Abe to Liverpool, from where he can return to his mother in New York City – a mission that writers Daniel Brocklehurst and Jemma Rodgers stage like a Children’s Film Foundation escapade.

It’s a sweet, touching tale, with moments of nicely judged, age-appropriate peril, and my nine- and seven-year-old sons were both gripped throughout. But it’s also an unavoidably pointed and peculiar choice. Of all the stories that could be told about children’s lives in wartime England, why go with one about the United States?

The answer, of course, is that British films are no longer made with a 1970s mindset: international casts make them easier to sell internationally, and right now, American racism is a big talking point worldwide. (Then again, when isn’t it?) But there is something depressing about the fact that even a Railway Children revival now can’t escape the churning vortex of the US culture war – that in order to make reviving this beloved property worthwhile, a bigger, louder country’s problems have to be quite literally imported into the UK, as if nothing sufficiently exciting could be found closer to hand. It’s hard not to be reminded of that particular breed of British Twitter user who treats every latest outrage from Washington DC as if it had been committed by their local parish council, rather than a legislature 4,000 miles away, in a nation whose political attitudes and obsessions bear little relation to ours.

Oh well. Younger viewers won’t be remotely concerned by this – and perhaps older ones wouldn’t have either, had the Railway Children name not been attached. And there is a lot to enjoy here: the rescue of Abe rattles along, while scenes involving the children’s absent father, who’s off fighting in France, are deeply moving – thanks overwhelmingly to the 13-year-old Gadsdon, whose tremendous performance as the thoughtful Lily feels like a career-maker, and is more than strong enough to stand alongside the 17-year-old Agutter’s in the original. The film is charming, watchable, and well-meaning to a fault. It's the direction of travel which grates: if only someone had switched the points further back along the track.

PG cert, 98 min.Cinemas from Friday 15th July

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