his Second World War-set adventure features a key character and many of the motifs from Lionel Jeffries’ beloved take on the E Nesbit classic. As kids movie sequels go, it’s sweet, smart and involving. I was weeping within the first five minutes.
In 1905, the Waterbury children left London for Yorkshire, and discovered the joys of pestering benevolent old gents. Roughly 40 years later, plucky Bobbie (Jenny Agutter) is still living in the village of Oakworth and is now a widow, with a capable headmistress daughter (Sheridan Smith) and a shy but no-nonsense grandson, Thomas (Austin Haynes). When evacuees start arriving from bomb-wrecked Manchester, the family take in working-class siblings Lily (Beau Gadsdon), Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and Ted (Zac Cudby).
Lily is stroppier and cheekier than Bobbie, but just as decent. When the urchins stumble across a wounded African-American GI, Abe (KJ Aikens), Lily and Thomas decide he needs their help. Who’s out to get Abe? His very own commanders, it turns out, the (segregated) American military police.
The Railway Children Return has come under fire for making racial abuse central to the narrative. It’s a matter of record that such abuse was rife and was resisted by both black soldiers and white British locals (in 1943, Lancashire publicans were told by the military police to impose a “colour ban”; the witty Brits instantly agreed and put up signs saying, “Black troops only”). Even so, it’s been argued that such material is out of place in the sequel to a British children’s classic, a line of thinking that boils down to: “What’s American racism got to do with us?”
Such isolationist twaddle is barely worth debating (you might as well ask, “What did German xenophobia have to do with us?”). What needs pointing out is that such a stance does a disservice to Nesbit and Jeffries. In Nesbit’s book, and the 1970 film, the children feel empathy for a Russian writer targeted by the Tsar for documenting the horrific treatment of Russian peasants. At the core of this cuddly franchise is the need to support underdogs. Ironically, it’s the critics of the new movie who are at odds with tradition.
Gadsdon, Haynes and Aikens have gorgeous chemistry. Gadsdon (Rogue One; The Crown) has the most to do and, as well as being a convincing Mancunian (only once does she give away her Southern roots), is crucial to wrenching flashbacks that touch on the fact that not all beloved daddies come home.
Meanwhile, Agutter is mostly fabulous and occasionally wooden. It’s weird seeing her out-acted by this new set of children; at her worst moments, she resembles a Celebrity Bake-off contestant, bewildered by the sorry state of her signature meringues.
This is not the most polished yarn you’ll see in 2022, but it’s potent. Daddies. Mummies. Guardian angels. If you can persuade children to watch this small British movie you’ll be rewarded – by the time it’s over – with the biggest of hugs.
95mins, cert PG