The title of “Railway Children” in the UK is “The Railway Children Return”, as it is both an homage to and a sequel to Lionel Jeffries‘ 1970s film—and British national treasure—“The Railway Children” (itself an adaptation of a Edith nesbit novel). But Morgan MatthewsThe unsolicited sequel would be far better described as a resurrection than a comeback, as it drags lifelessly through all the well-mannered farces, Arcadian pranks, and flag escapades of its beloved predecessor, pausing only to swap the original’s careless commentary on xenophobia to an equally careless discourse on racial injustice. The decision to change the name was arguably more commercial than artistic, but even so, it’s hard not to feel that American distributors are smiling to themselves, knowing they’ve avoided at least some ill-fated comparisons.
The year is 1944. Lily Brothers (handsome Gadsdon), Pat (Eden Hamilton) and Ted Watts (Zac Cudby) – aged 14, 11 and 7 respectively – are evacuated from the streets of Manchester to the beautiful Yorkshire town of Oakworth. Upon arrival, they and the other town kids are ushered off the train by a proud and chatty stationmaster (does it look familiar yet?) and introduced to the local host families. The Watts children are, of course, chosen last for maximum pathos (a point that would not normally matter, since the housing officer would certainly know how many hosts there are, and therefore how many children must be taken off the train; but whichever for reason, there doesn’t seem to be such an officer here), but they are ultimately chosen by Annie Waterbury (Sheridan Smith) and his mother Bobbie (Jenny Agutter), who got up and came to Oakworth with his mother (Dinah Sheridan) and two brothers (Sally Thomsett and Gary Warren) there in 1905.
The kids quickly befriend Annie’s son Thomas (Austin Haynes), who shows them the ropes of country life while educating him about the horrors of city warfare. And it all moves along in a Flying Scotsman rhythm, bathed in a sepia of fond memories, until Pattie comes across a wounded African-American soldier named Abe McCarthy (KJ Aikens). Abe joined the US Army at the tender age of 14, determined to avenge his older brother, who was recently killed on the front lines. But his passion for the cause, both personal and national, has since been overtaken by the mistreatment of him and other black soldiers at the hands of the US Military Police. As a result, he abandoned his battalion and is now trying to get the first boat back to New York. The Watts children are therefore tasked with taking Abe to the port of Liverpool. Fortunately for them, the dei ex machina in Oakworth come as regularly and loudly as the trains.
For what is a trio of feature-length debuts, the Watts sons give lively and compelling performances (especially the headstrong Gadsdon) that mesh nicely with Agutter’s peripheral but distinct ghostly. The film also features a charming cameo by Tom Courtenay like Thomas’ gentle Uncle Walter, citing Churchill, as well as several outbursts John Bradleywhose kvetching stationmaster Richard Perks pays a beautiful tribute to the late Bernard Cribbins. A little out of tune, however, is Aikens’ Abe. He frequently changes the tone from scene to scene – and sometimes even line to line – so that by the end of the film we’ve heard everything from world-weary, naivete, hammy melancholy, to baseless intrepidity.
As anyone familiar with “The Railway Children” could probably guess, the sequel doesn’t benefit from its decade shift. At least part of the original film’s appeal was its friendliness and reassurance, its protection from conflict, and its sunny youth. It featured a haughty miniature of early 1900s England, steeped in Housman and Elgar and locomotive spirit, in which you could easily retreat for two hours of corny apes. The few difficulties he invoked were discreetly alluded to but never shown – such as the Russian dissident writer who escaped the gulag or Charles Waterbury’s fake arrest and subsequent exoneration, all carried out off-screen – and his obscenity never went beyond of a slight insinuation, a bucket of water over the door, and a painless fracture sustained in a paper hunt. On the other hand, the world of “Railway Children” is tinged with war, racism and public beatings. (Even the matriarch of the Three Chimneys has been changed from clumsy housewife to fire teacher; and the children’s absentee father is no longer just in prison, but is now explicitly dead.) The leap from G to PG is, of course, , small, and the new movie is hardly “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, but by breaking ignorance, bliss is also broken; and therefore the cheeky egg thrown at the conductor of the train not only no longer raises a sly smile, but now seems a little flippant, considering the various matters.
Who, then, is this sequel for? It’s hard to imagine any child these days relating to repeated characters’ triumphs over the parochialisms of a bygone world, or, for that matter, laughing at the prospect of being caught by Germans during a game of hide and seek. Likewise, there’s nothing here for those fortunate enough to regard the original as fluffy kitsch, beyond perhaps a mental nudge to once again dust off your old VHS tapes or start your favorite streaming service and go back to real Oakworth and its happy roads. And despite what its redacted title might suggest, the screenplay for “Railway Children” is so laden with allusions and recreations, so conscious of its filmic debt, that it cannot stand alone or be appreciated without the crucial element of return – which all presents a bit of a problem if you’re new to the story and its characters, or if, like this reviewer, you didn’t care much for Lazarus the first time around. [D+]
Source : theplaylist.net