The new emotionally rewarding adaptation of E. Nesbit’s children’s book “The Railway Children” should come with a special warning to curmudgeons everywhere. It’s not even Thanksgiving yet, and this low-key charmer succeeds in melting your heart by the time the final scene unfolds. It may not restore your faith in humanity, but it certainly bathes you in the milk of human kindness. Just don’t switch back to the local news when it’s over.
This is the second adaptation of Nesbit’s story about a well-to-do turn-of-the-century family, forced to move to a small village and live under reduced circumstances when the father (Michael Kitchen) is mysteriously taken away by the police. In this new “Masterpiece Theatre” offering, Mrs. Waterbury is played by the lovely Jenny Agutter (“Walkabout,” “An American Werewolf in London”), who played the young daughter in the 1970 film version.
For many American auds, the sight of Agutter as a middle-aged woman may be a bit tough to take at first. But the actress is quite effective as the unwavering mother of three resourceful children, who has to earn a living by selling her stories to magazines.
The children, played with natural ease by Jemima Rooper, Jack Blumenau and Clare Thomas, are not your cookie-cutter tyke types either. They each bring a special spark to their individual roles, and are especially good at walking in the shoes of early 20th century characters, with the right mix of innocence and enthusiasm.
Gratefully, none of them are of the cloying, “Touched by an Angel” variety. They do come up with clever ways of helping their mom, but they never come across as annoying little saints.
Nesbit’s other eccentric village characters, Perks (Gregor Fisher) the Station Master (Clive Russell), Dr. Forrest (David Bamber) are all a good mix of sugar and vinegar. You can tell they are all getting fond of the Waterbury anklebiters, but they don’t get all gushy and falsely sentimental on you.
One of the pleasures of the drama is following the adventures of Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis by the railroad where they spend much of their time. Whether they are aiding a lost Russian exile, asking a kind railroad tycoon (Richard Attenborough) for help with their dilemmas, or preparing a surprise birthday party for one of their grown-up friends, it’s a blast to see them plan their way through the maze of their new country lives.
Surprisingly, the Carlton TV production falls a bit short in the photography and production design department. Perhaps we’re spoiled by the BBC’s usual high standards, but this charming children’s tale could have easily lent itself to higher cinematic values. One can only imagine the kind of visual magic helmers like Alfonso Cuaron (“A Little Princess”) or Agnieszka Holland (“The Secret Garden”) would have brought to the lush East Sussex locations.
But that’s only a minor quibble. Simon Nye’s teleplay and the solid acting are more than enough to convey author Nesbit’s kinder, gentler world. Viewers should also stick around for host Russell Baker’s closing words, during which he reveals some surprising biographical information about the author’s unconventional lifestyle.