Cert – PG, Run-time – 1 hour 35 minutes, Director – Morgan Matthews
Three siblings (Beau Gadsdon, Eden Hamilton, Zac Cudby) are evacuated to Yorkshire during World War II, where they must help an American solider (Kenneth Aikens) escape to Liverpool as part of a secret mission.
1970’s take on The Railway Children is a fairly quaint and calm affair. It follows the three central children as they wave to the passing steam trains, while wondering when they may get to see their father again, interspersed with moments of a slightly fumbling BAFTA-nominated Bernard Cribbins. It’s a generally calm film with not much in the way of plot, but still enough to engage the audiences of various ages, a British family film of a much different age. The difference in times shows in this sort-of sequel. Set just under 40 years later in 1944 we follow three more children; eldest Lily (Beau Gadsdon), Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and Ted (Zac Cudby), as they are evacuated from Manchester to the small Yorkshire village of Oakworth. When nobody else will take them in, due to the siblings wanting to stay together, they find themselves taken in by original protagonist Bobbie’s (a returning, if eventually forgotten about, Jenny Agutter) daughter, headteacher of the local school Annie (Sheridan Smith), alongside her own son Thomas (Austin Haynes).
Life in Oakworth is a lot different to that in Manchester, that’s made very clear from the various mentions and discussions of that fact. But, there’s of course common ground to be found between all the children, including young US soldier Abe (Kenneth Aikens), whose discovered hiding in the trainyard away from the rest of the army figures and military police in the area. While the children attempt to help Abe escape to Liverpool as part of a secret mission they all begin to open up about the people the war has taken away from them. Whether it be brothers or parents there are various insights into the emotional losses and impacts that the war has had on the young protagonists. None more so than Lily as she experiences flashbacks to saying goodbye to her father in an environment that appears to be made entirely of dark smoke – just to push the point across a bit more.
The devastation of war is something pushed throughout the film, alongside just how bad it is. Sentiments such as “I ‘ate war, I ‘ate it” and “in war, even the dead aren’t safe” are spoken in quiet, reflective scenes which bring about the feeling that perhaps the film would be better off as a TV special rather than a full feature film. It’s something further pushed in the lingering feeling that you don’t quite believe the film is actually set in 1944; instead being more of a recreation of sorts with people just dressed up for the time period. It’s a mild agitation which stops you from properly engaging with the film and the unfolding events, of which there appear to be a number opened in the first half from a handful of perspectives. It all bundles together into something quite tonally bumpy, especially when it comes to the attitudes and feelings from the central figures – at one moment they’re worried about a German lurking in their hideout, the next they’re excited about the prospect, sometimes within the same line of dialogue.
It’s much the same when it comes to the treatment of race within the film. Abe is a black soldier who has deserted the rest of the army due to racist abuse from white military police. However, such topics and ideas are dealt with so lightly that the surface level scraping rarely lands a proper impact and simply feels like just another element to add to the film. It’s one of the more consistent references in the film, but feels as if it never pierces the skin or makes a proper point. Instead, we carry along as the film carries along with its narrative elements and ideas of escape.
Such ideas come more into play in the second half where things manage to just about pick up. While the film as a whole may be fairly forgettable it at least leaves on a decent enough tone. Some ideas are shed and a better pacing is found, even the recreation feeling is dropped as you manage to sit and watch the unfolding events with more ease. Yes, some ideas still don’t quite go below the surface, but there’s still a more likable tone and quality once things come together as a selection of properly joined ideas in the second half where it feels more like a properly working film. One which, admittedly – and I should have probably mentioned this much earlier in these ramblings – I am not the target audience for. While I’m not completely sure who is, I’m definitely not. That being said, there’s still a level of amusement to be found at certain points, largely in that latter section, but enough to stop this from being entirely agitating viewing for the 95 minute that it’s on. Viewing which eventually evens out and forms something which feels more filmlike instead of like a TV special. It’s at the point that the railway actually comes into focus where things begin to work best.
While starting off as feeling more like a recreation or TV special The Railway Children Return, while still not quite getting below the surface on certain dramatic themes, does eventually produce something less frustrating that moves along well enough once the railway actually comes into focus and the flow picks up in the second half.