It doesn’t help the cause of The Railway Children Return that the original 1970 Railway Children film is currently on iPlayer. Just to test my capacity to cry, having emerged dry-eyed from the new one, I came home and re-watched the original. Yup. The 2022 sequel has three scenes of the new cohort of Railway Children – three second world war evacuees from Manchester, Lily, Pattie and Ted – waving goodbye to their soldier father as he departs for war, in the fog, never to return. Violins soar. Eyes remain dry. The 1970 film has just one scene of Daddy arriving home, in the fog of a steam train, and it still makes me sob every time.
So is a return more moving than a departure? It certainly can be, but you have to live through the desolation first. The original film was carried by the young Jenny Agutter, whose beautiful speaking voice as narrator trying to make sense of her father’s disappearance captivated the world. ‘We were not the Railway Children to begin with,’ were her opening lines, straight from E. Nesbit, and we were swept off our feet.
It’s a good idea to have three Manchester children holed up in Yorkshire this time round. The three child actors, Beau Gadsdon, Eden Hamilton and Zac Cudby, look adorable in their berets and Fair Isle jerseys and say their lines well at the evacuee-selecting, nit-checking ceremony in the village hall. (‘Will you take ooz?’ ‘No one’s chosen ooz. We’re too many.’) And, blissfully, Jenny Agutter, as Bobbie – yes, the very same Bobbie, now a granny! – is the one who takes them in, along with her daughter Annie (Sheridan Smith) and sweet grandson Thomas (Austin Haynes).
And off they all run, through the buttercup meadow down to the railway line. This could be good. But what has scriptwriter Danny Brocklehust decided should be the overwhelming driver of the plot? No, not the disappearance of fathers, although two soldier fathers are missing in this version, both the children’s and Thomas’s, but racism in the American army.
The injured stranger whom the children discover hiding out in a disused brake van (he has a lovely bleeding leg, oozing ketchup just like the cross-country runner’s in the original) is a young black American soldier called Private Abe McCarthy. They bring him supplies and then hide him in the house. It turns out that what he’s really escaping from is the culture of racist abuse in the US Army stationed in Britain, in which black soldiers are beaten up for having relationships with white women. The baddies here are the white-helmeted American military police, an inhuman force, like the stormtroopers in Star Wars.
Will children really be captivated by this anti-racism storyline? The educational message tugs at the morality strings, but not quite at the heartstrings. Sample lines: ‘The Nazis don’t like people different from themselves.’ ‘And they’re not the only ones.’ Thrown in for good lesson-teaching measure are a handful of feminist quips: ‘I wish Churchill had been more helpful to us Suffragettes,’ says Bobbie. And, to her uncle in the civil service: ‘How many women are there in senior positions in your department?’
The only thing that almost did make me cry was the news that Peter – sweet Peter, Bobbie’s younger brother – died in the first world war. Of course he did. It was inevitable. But it’s a bitter pill to swallow.
The coming together of the massed gaggle of village children in the final act of the film, who frantically wave red banners to try to stop the train in which Abe and Lily are handcuffed, has a nice Emil and the Detectives and Hue and Cry charm. It’s so nearly good. Just spare us the preaching, please.
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