September 19, 2022 Railway Children (Movie Review)
Actor Bernard Cribbins is better known as Donna Noble’s grandfather in the Doctor Who series. Some might even recognize his first stint with the Timelord in 1966’s Daleks- Invasion Earth 2150 or singing the song that gave 1990s one-hit wonders Right Said Fred their name.
But within the UK, he’s most famous for playing the friendly porter in 1970’s The Railway Children. Based on the 1906 novel by Edith Nesbit, it was about an affluent family reduced to living in a cheap hovel in Yorkshire. But the kids bounce back through a series of events involving befriending the porter at the local train station, helping out on the railway, and worrying about their father as he risks getting imprisoned. The film became a beloved classic in Britain for being exciting and moving, especially with its ending.
So, it is somewhat surprising that it got a sequel over 50 years later. Originally entitled The Railway Children Return and released in the UK on July 15, 2022, the film will reach the US as just Railway Children. Because ‘Railroad Children’ would have sounded weird. It is directed by Morgan Matthews (X+Y 2014, Williams 2017) and written by Danny Brocklehurst (Brassic series, Come Home 2018), based on a treatment by Jemma Rodgers (Double Take series, Little Miss Jocelyn series).
The new title might be more fitting as it follows a different set of ‘Railway Children’ now. Set in 1944, the film follows the Watts children- Lily (Beau Gadson: Rogue One 2016, The Crown series), Pattie (Eden Hamilton), and Ted (Zac Cudby). They are evacuated to the Yorkshire village of Oakworth to escape the Nazi bombings and are taken into care by original Railway Child Bobbie Waterbury (Jenny Agutter: Walkabout 1971, An American Werewolf in London 1981), her daughter Annie (Sheridan Smith: Love Soup series, Quartet 2012), and grandson Thomas (Austin Haynes: The Duke 2020, Ali & Ava 2021).
They help the kids adjust to life in the country, but things take a turn when they find Abe (KJ Aikens: Okko’s Inn 2018. Modern Love series), an injured Afro-American soldier, hiding in the rail yard at the station. They hope to help him out, but that might be easier said than done. What can they do when his fellow troopers aren’t so friendly? Nor willing to send him back home.
The film will be out in US cinemas on September 23rd via Blue Fox Entertainment. The original film was one of the most British things around, and the sequel keeps up with that theme. Its humble village setting got subverted years ago in 2008’s Hot Fuzz, so some viewers might be hoping to see an escaped goose, some Cornettos, and a nefarious conspiracy “for the greater good.”
But Railway Children is not that kind of film. It plays its themes straight as some mischievous city kids learn to live in the country via events at the nearby railway station. But it is not all clean-cut, as the kids have more edge to them (there is some literal toilet humor within the first 7 minutes, complete with suggestive imagery). Plus, it shows what evacuee children had to go through, only not all of them had a Waterbury to adopt them at the last minute.
There is more drama like this to go with the farmyard frolics, though it does feel a little too close to the original film. The Watts consist of one older girl looking after her little brother and sister like the Waterburys, all of whom are worried about their father as he faces a crisis (scandal/war). Abe’s story somewhat mirrors that of the French-speaking Russian soldier in the original story, which gets brought up in the film alongside other references.
So, the film is less a sequel and more of a tribute act. Yet it does bring something new to the table: racism. The film took inspiration from the ‘Battle of Bamber Bridge’ (white US troops attack black ones because UK locals refused to put up with US soldiers’ insistence on segregation) to create Abe’s story. It adds some original drama on top of the typical domestic troubles, and in general does not shy away from the fact that bad things happen. Still, the tone is overall cosier and more sentimental compared to the harsh reality.
The acting is quite good though. Hamilton and Cudby do particularly well for their debut outing. But the film belongs to Gadson and Aikens, who drive the plot home as its heart and soul. John Bradley (Game of Thrones series. Moonfall 2022) does an alright job filling in Cribbins’ shoes as the grandson of his character. Smith also does a touching job as the mother/teacher to the kids. Though it is a shame Agutter does not have more to do beyond providing a few links to the past.
Thus, Railway Children are rather by-the-numbers. The acting and direction are fine, but the plot and characters are too close to the original film for it to stand out on its own. It feels more like an attempt to replicate the 1970 film’s formula than an earnest attempt to follow it up. They got its structure down, but not its brain or heart. Which is a shame as it has some good ideas with Abe. It is fine on its own as feel-good, comfort media. But its predecessor is better at that. Accept no substitutes and look for The Railway Children instead. Cryptic Rock gives this film 2.5 out of 5 stars.