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Railway Children


‘…largely fails because of British cinema’s endless regurgitation of nostalgia for the past in the forlorn hope of forming national identity in a post-Brexit world…’

Several readers of this website are currently in the US, so it’s probably best to use the American title for this film, released over the weekend in the States. That’s because Railway Children is a stealth sequel of sorts to the 1970’s film, still a staple of UK TV bank-holiday programming even if it’s hardly known over the pond. Released as The Railway Children Return in the UK, Morgan Matthews’ family adventure failed to summon or surf much of a wave of nostalgia back home, but it’s probably worth looking at it with fresh eyes and assessing it as a stand-alone feature in terms of a future shelf-life.

UK national treasure Jenny Agutter returns as Roberta Waterbury, aka Bobby, a teenage girl in the first film, now a grandmother seeking to protect her flock during the dark days of WWII. Bobby’s daughter Annie (Sheridan Smith) has her own son, but with Annie’s husband posted missing at the war, there’s space to take in some evacuees, and Bobby and Annie find space for the little tykes, in a reprise of the first film’s dynamic. What’s new here is a new emphasis on race; before you can say Whistle Down The Wind, the kids find a mysterious stranger sleeping in a disused railway car, who proves to be a black GI child soldier Abe (KJ Aikens) who has deserted his unit due to racist violence. Tom Courtney and ‘megastructure” expert David Bradley round out the cast.

This new woke direction seems to have greatly upset fans of the original E Nesbitt text based on their online complaints, but in truth, Railway Children probably needed an update; the kind of goody-two- shoes japes of the original would hardly fly today. But the details remains stubbornly problematic; the nostalgic tone means that Danny Brocklehust’s script, co-written with producer Jemma Rodgers, is at lengths to make villains of the US military police, and absolves all the English characters of any racial bias whatsoever. The UK, like most countries, still have obvious issues with race, so a clean report card in the 1940’s seems like a whitewash sop for kids only.

However the title goes, Railway Children largely fails because of British cinema’s endless regurgitation of nostalgia for the past in the forlorn hope of forming national identity in a post-Brexit world; there’s no wave to surf right now. From The Aftermath to Their Finest, the list of unpopular texts stretch back some ten years now, and Chris Nolan’s Dunkirk is the only one to land. Nostalgia for a past that never existed can work, and although it’s nice to see Agutter reprise her iconic role, everything about this smacks of worthy Sunday evening television. Despite good intentions, somewhere along the line, Railway Children hits the buffers.


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  1. Saw this at the cinema. The woke element was interesting and certainly rang true, but it was hard to square it with the tykes run wild core. Looks like it was made with future Bank Holiday viewing in mind rather than as the first of a series.

    • I salute your dedication! Best dropped on uk tv at the first possible activity. It’s not that such a situation couldn’t happen, but exploring from a child’s pov doesn’t allow much depth, and provides an idealised view of race in the UK.

  2. I haven’t seen this but I am aware of it since it was made almost literally in my backyard and it is an important tourist attraction for our town and it’s preserved railway along with the original. I agree with most of your general comments but a couple of points worry me. The Black GI could certainly be on the run from the white Military Police. There were several newspaper reports of incidents in 1943-4 of British communities supporting Black GIs when the still segregated US military attempted to prevent Black soldiers using local pubs and dance halls. One reference is in the film YANKS (UK 1979) and another became an important elements of a Nevil Shute novel, THE CHEQUERBOARD (1947). You mention THEIR FINEST HOUR as a flop British film about the Second World War, but I think that was a US documentary from 2012? If you meant THEIR FINEST (UK 2016) with Gemma Arterton, that wasn’t a flop at the box office and I thought it was pretty good.

    • You’ve got me bang to rights! I’ve corrected my erroneous titling of Their Finest, thanks! The box office looks a bit so-so to me, but I’ll stand by my general point that, Dunkirk aside, none of these WWII heritage pictures have clicked with UK audiences. I also take your point about IS military police and black GI’s; that should be a matter of recordable fact, but what bothered me is the woke, diversity accepting British characters who never display any kind of racism. Having decided to go down the route of addressing race, I feel they needed more grit in the oyster in terms of showing that not all Brits would have the kind of positive attitudes to race shown here. You could argue that a family film isn’t the place, but they picked this subject matter, and could have used a bit more depth rather than just presenting the US MPs as faceless baddies. Lovely backdrops, though! And yes, I think Yanks is underrated as a more earthy view of the period.

  3. Wait a second, the movie Dunkirk wasn’t about dunking all the tykes in the ocean to give them a free salt bath?
    See, this is why I continue to read your movie reviews. I learn so much!

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