The Railway Children are a trio of siblings who move to a small cottage by the tracks after their father (Michael Kitchen) is falsely accused of treason. The family find themselves in reduced circumstances, with Mother (Jenny Agutter) having to sell stories to make ends meet. They arrive at their new lodgings in the middle of the night and throw together a dinner, during which time Mother prepares them for a few changes.
As she struggles to open a jar of preserves, youngest daughter Phyllis (Clare Thomas) remarks how easy it would be for Father to twist off the cap, only to get a hard kick under the table from oldest sister Robbie (Jemima Rooper). Robbie tries to divert the attention by casually mentioning the weather, which earns her a rebuke from younger brother Peter (Jack Blumenau). “Stop trying to be so grown up,” he says, his voice full of middle child contempt.
This scene has all the magic of a satisfying children’s film. The most recent incarnation of E. Nesbit’s book, The Railway Children follows the tradition of the Disney Channel, back when it was a premium station and aired family friendly fare that was touching without being schmaltzy. Kevin Sullivan productions were a staple, and this quiet TV movie echoes of films and shows like Anne of Green Gables and Avonlea in tone and subject matter. It portrays the whimsy of childhood in early 1900s England while still treating its young characters with the same seriousness with which they see the world.
Bobbie centers the film; she is a young girl edging into adulthood but finds her transition sped up by circumstances she doesn’t entirely understand. Mother keeps the reason for Father’s absence a secret, and Bobbie struggles to respect her decision while filled with a young daughter’s yearning for her missing parent. Peter, meanwhile, may not be so emotionally perceptive, but he too feels he must carve himself a new role. In one episode, he steals coal to warm the house but keeps his intentions quiet and bears the consequences gravely. The scene is equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking.
Much of the movie’s success can be attributed to the young actors, who delightfully capture their characters’ kindness without sacrificing their slight mischievousness. Just as there is nothing showy about the writing or direction, Rooper, Blumenau, and Thomas’s performances don’t draw attention to anything but their characters and the bucolic world they inhabit. They share a sibling-like chemistry that gives this family picture a lift.
And with such decent children scampering about, it’s no wonder almost everyone else in the story quickly takes to them. Perks (Gregor Fisher), a friendly porter, and a nameless, mysterious old man (Richard Attenborough) whom they see on the train, are only several people who aid them in their exploits, which if we are frank, seem dangerous if not downright reckless in our cynical twenty-first century eyes.
But a spirit of trust and generosity runs throughout and overrides the grit of living in poverty next to a railroad; that variety of realism belongs in another picture. Instead, charity illuminates the children’s many adventures. Under Mother’s guidance, bringing strangers home isn’t risky but commendable. Agutter, who rose to fame playing Robbie in the 1970 film, gets a lot of credit in her new role. She wears the strength and vulnerability of her circumstance well.
The only drawback (besides the fact that Michael Kitchen appears in all but five minutes of the movie) are the visuals, which come off a little flat considering the scope of the landscape. The aesthetics do not quite live up to the imagination of the children. But this is a minor quibble when compared to the warmth the movie evokes.
Prod: Jonathan Powell
Dir: Catherine Morshead
Writer: Simon Nye
Cast: Jemima Rooper, Jenny Agutter, Jack Blumenau, Clare Thomas, Michael Kitchen, Gregor Fisher, Clive Russell, Richard Attenborough, David Bamber, Velibor Topic, Sophie Thompson, JJ Feild
Time: 108 min
Country: United Kingdom, a little Russian