Jenny Agutter reprises her iconic role in an endearing but emotionally underpowered follow-up to the 1970 British classic
Five decades later, Jenny Agutter’s tear-jerking cry of “Daddy, my daddy!”, heard as she reunites with her father on a station platform in Lionel Jeffries’ 1970 adaptation of The Railway Children, is hard to resist. Her tender, wide-eyed performance as Roberta “Bobbie” Waterbury provides the warm, beating heart of the classic film, and is probably the principal reason it remains beloved to this day.
And so the ongoing march to conquer any and all dormant intellectual property continues with The Railway Children Return, a sequel to the 1970 film rather than a new adaptation of E. Nesbitt’s 1905 novel. In the original story, three siblings are uprooted from their Edwardian London life to a cottage in Oakworth, Yorkshire, after their father is mysteriously taken away. Adventures ensue around the local railway station, while Bobbie is haunted by the terrible secret of their father’s disappearance.
This sequel, directed with a steady hand by Morgan Matthews, is set some forty years later during the Second World War, and begins with the evacuation of three working class children from bombed out Manchester to that same Yorkshire village. Lily (played by 14-year-old Beau Gadsdon) Pattie and Ted are, of course, taken in by Bobbie and her family, with Jenny Agutter reprising her original role, Sheridan Smith playing her daughter Annie, and Tom Courtenay popping in as a kindly uncle.
The central update to the story mostly works, paying homage to its origins but within the more urgent context of war. It’s certainly not innocent of a soft-focus nostalgia for a bygone age, with endless sunshine, an abundance of British spirit and an overactive score. John Bradley (best known for his turn in Game of Thrones) plays a bumbling station master with a penchant for scones, though he can’t hold a candle to Bernard Cribbins’ deft comic performance as Perks the porter in the 1970 film.
And yet Matthews avoids letting things get too cosy. The village children throw stones at the evacuees, the shadow of the First World War lingers, and Lily is plagued with nightmares of their father’s departure to fight. The primary plot concerns Lily, Pattie and Ted’s befriending of a young African American runaway who suffered racist abuse from his army unit stationed nearby. The engagement with social issues might seem forced, but it actually echoes the original's film plot in which Bobbie takes in a refugee author escaping prison in Tsarist Russia.
It all chuffs along cheerfully enough, with screenwriter Daniel Brocklehurst letting the new generation of children take centre stage rather than relying on veterans like Agutter. Beau Gadson as courageous Lily, wise beyond her years, is particularly strong. But what is lost in this newer rendition is the quiet melancholy of Bobbie’s coming of age; the sense that she can’t stop the onslaught of a confusing, often harsh adult world from which she must protect her younger siblings. This sequel, lively and endearing as it is, just can’t match the sheer emotional power of Bobbie, briefly allowed to return to childhood, crying out for her father and running down the platform into his arms.
The Railway Children Return is released in UK cinemas on 15 July.Where to watch