The Railway Children Return

by Toby Woollaston

Verdict: An old-fashioned romp that doesn’t quite leave the station.

Britain’s wartime children being squirrelled out of harm’s way from Hitler’s bombs seems, on the surface, a quaint notion—one that this film awkwardly stows among its more pointed subject matter. Director Morgan Matthews’ (X+Y) latest film, which is a sequel to Lionel Jeffries’s 1970 original The Railway Children, is an Enid Blytonesque adventurous romp through wartime Briton where we are to forage among the lashings of larks and giggles to find a worthy wartime message.

Set in 1944 (some decades after when Nesbit’s original The Railway Children book is set) the film follows a group of children who have been evacuated to rural Yorkshire. Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of nostalgic nods, most notably Jenny Agutter, who played Bobby in the original film, reprises her role, now as a grandmother. There under her watchful eye the children squabble, have food fights, play in the mud, and other boisterous hijinks. When they skip away over the lush green fields towards a train yard the story finds its narrative purpose as they cross paths with Abe (Kenneth Aikens), an injured Black American GI hiding in an abandoned railway carriage.

While the screenplay is in tonal lockstep (superficially, at least) with the original, it seems clear that writers, Daniel Brocklehurst and Jemma Rodgers (both who write mainly for the small-screen) want this story to break free from the original’s naive charm. And although they do their best to make this story current, their over-pandering to contemporary mores feels shoe-horned and strangely anachronistic.

Among this awkward mix of buoyant charms and earnest weight is Morgan Matthews’ relatively uninspiring direction which is, thankfully, rescued by an enthusiastic young cast along with stalwarts Jenny Agutter and Tom Courtenay (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society) who briefly deliver some worthy table-side soliloquies. Certainly, at surface level The Railway Children Return will delight fans of the original and if you can stomach the misplaced virtues that billow from this fluffy period piece, then all aboard.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.