“Railway Children” has more hugs in it than any British movie this side of “Love, Actually.” So much for chilly, oppressed English reserve — then or now.
This treacly trifle is the latest version of an E. Nesbit novel from 1905, a tale of city kids sadly separated from their parents and sent to live in the country.
This period-piece has been turned into at least three TV series and many movies, most famously a film from 1970. That movie’s Yorkshire locations, and one of its child stars — Jenny Agutter, who also starred in a 1960s TV version — are revived for this film, which wore the title “The Railway Children Return” at one point.
Setting this “reboot” of the tale during World War II, when British cities were being bombed and parents were urged to ship their kids off to the country, often to live with complete strangers, is such a clever touch that it’s shocking no one thought of it adapting it before. Perhaps one of the post-war versions did. That adds pathos and a hint of tragedy to the story, and raises the stakes.
Picking 1944 as the year when the sisters Lily (Beau Gadsdon) and Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and their little brother Ted (Zac Crudby) are packed off to stay with strangers is odd. The London Blitz was years before, and the big exodus of kids came earlier. But that’s a plot contrivance that makes another subtext fit.
Their nurse-mother takes them to their tearful farewell at the train station, sending them off with “Look after them, you’re the parent now” instructions to Lily.
They steam from Manchester (which was only bombed twice, in 1940) into the country, to scenic, quaint Oakworth where school teacher Annie (Sheridan Smith), her son Thomas (Austin Haynes) and Annie’s mother (Agutter) show up at the school to see who needs to be taken in.
A sweet touch — grandma remembers when she came to the country, a reference to Agutter’s film of 50 years ago. Another? Granny advises them to “wait” and see who can’t be placed. Most families would blanch at having to feed three extra mouths. “There’s a war on,” as folks said back then.
But they take on the three kids, keep calm and carry them home.
Life here is all schoolwork, “sweets” and precious few chores. Annie shows them how to run after they’ve fetched the morning’s eggs from her hens, so that they drop and break a few. The kids cut loose during a bread-making lesson by having a flour fight.
Not to be a fussbudget, but wasting food was a cardinal sin on an island that was rationing everything and worried about being starved out is a detail that some born-yesterday screenwriter should have looked up.
The three new kids join Thomas for rambles in the countryside, and playtime at the local railyard. That’s where he’s turned an abandoned trolley car into a clubhouse. It’s there, after tall, plucky Lily has handled a local bully, that they stumble across a deserter.
It’s wholly worthwhile for a film about Britain in World War II to introduce African American characters and the Jim Crow racism that the U.S. military dragged with it as it sent troops overseas. But this slight, unevenly-acted children’s film handles it rather clumsily.
AJ Aiken plays Abe, a teen who has been beaten by racist MPs (we see this happen several times) for fraternizing with the white local girls and who has decided to try and find his way home. The kids try to help, and bond with the stranger as they do.
That’s a well-intentioned but somewhat wan attempt to add a little gravitas to the “children’s war movie” proceedings. One other bit of military melodrama is introduced when a stray bomber looses a stray bomb. Not to worry. Manchester Lily knows just how to react.
“If you’re still alive after the noise is gone, you’re OK!”
Tom Courtenay shows up to twinkle through a moment or two, a visiting uncle relating news about the war, about “Rommel” and his army being “crushed” in North Africa. That was in 1942-43. Is this supposed to be before D-Day, or shortly after in 1944? One wonders just how much history those who scripted it dug into.
The World War II material carries a lot of the emotional and action weight in this “Railway Children,” with parents missing or actually missing in action, an air raid and American GIs bringing their problems from home with them. That stuff is simply handled, and rendered into thin drama. One wonders what on Earth Nesbitt’s novel had in it that carried the story along and gave it drama without WWII. And the epilogue that wraps this entire enterprise up is so namby pamby as to make one wonder why The War was used if they weren’t going to treat it as the perilous and sad event that it was, for adults as well as children.
Still, it’s all harmless enough, and a lovely Yorkshire travelogue if nothing else. Gadsdon (“The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” “Rogue One” and young Princess Margaret in TV’s “The Crown) is the stand-out performer. Try not to notice how distracted the other kid-players seem in group scenes.
Cast: Beau Gadsdon, Austin Haynes, KJ Aikens, Eden Hamilton, Sheridan Smith, Zac Cudby, Tom Courtenay, John Bradley and Jenny Agutter.
Credits: Directed by Morgan Matthews, scripted by Daniel Brockhurst and Jemma Rogers, based on the 1970 film which was based on a novel by E. Nesbit. A Blue Fox release.
Running time: 1:35