Even upon its release 52 years ago, Lionel Jeffries’ adaptation of “The Railway Children” was something of a throwback: a kindly, low-conflict family entertainment, faithfully drawn from E. Nesbit’s 1905 children’s novel, that hearkened back to an Edwardian-era England of steam trains, rolling green fields and close-knit village communities. At the time, it caught a wave of nostalgia that got it firmly cemented in the popular British canon, even if it never attained quite the same classic status abroad. Half a century later, it’s still regarded with “they don’t make ’em like they used to” fervor. A very belated follow-up, Morgan Matthews’ “The Railway Children Return” aims to prove that, in fact, they do.
Effectively piling nostalgia upon nostalgia upon nostalgia into a triple-layered Victorian sponge of particularly English sweetness, this good-natured, resolutely old-fashioned film will likely make any adults who grew up on Jeffries’ original a little misty-eyed. Whether it will resonate with their own children is the question to be answered when Studiocanal releases “The Railway Children Return” in U.K. cinemas on July 15. (Blue Fox Entertainment will distribute the film Stateside, though it is currently undated.) Though Daniel Brocklehurst’s screenplay — from a treatment by producer Jemma Rodgers — notionally updates proceedings from the original’s turn-of-the-20th-century setting, it’s hardly a modernization: The year is now 1944, though still the Mesozoic era in the eyes of Generation Alpha.
The shift is a canny one, however, with the Second World War milieu giving the filmmakers an obvious reason to essentially recycle the first film’s premise of city kids adapting and exploring when relocated to the Yorkshire countryside. In “The Railway Children,” the three Waterbury siblings — led by headstrong Bobbie, played by the then-teenaged Jenny Agutter — were plunged into relative poverty and moved from London following the arrest of their upper-class father. Here, the youngsters in question are among the legions of child evacuees transported from their urban homes to relative rural safety from WWII aerial bombings. The film wastes no time establishing these emotional stakes, opening on a suitably wrenching scene of tearful parent-child farewells at a Manchester train station, and making an early attack on viewers’ tear ducts.
High spirits prevail soon enough. The original’s family dynamics are neatly mirrored in the new film’s appealing trio of siblings, with enterprising, tomboyish teen Lily (Beau Gadsdon, previously seen in “Rogue One” and “The Crown”) assuming responsibility for rebellious Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and sensitive baby brother Ted (Zac Cudby) when they arrive in the peaceful West Yorkshire village of Oakworth — where “The Railway Children” first unfolded — with a garrulous gaggle of fellow waifs. As local families step forward to shelter the children of their choosing, Lily, Pattie and Ted’s rescuer turns out to be none other than the grown-up Bobbie, played with twinkly benevolence by a returning Agutter, still living in the handsome farmhouse that her family settled in all those years ago.
Part sequel and part remake, “The Railway Children Return” abounds in such affectionate callbacks to its source, from recontextualized narrative details (once again, the children flag down a train with handmade signals) to regenerated characters like John Bradley’s friendly stationmaster. These various winks to older viewers are worked into a simple adventure plot that does eventually take its own track, distinct from the more episodic framework of the original.
Joined in their hijinks by Bobbie’s naive grandson Thomas (Austin Haynes), the children encounter Abe (Kenneth Aikens), a teenage African-American soldier on the run from a military unit where racial abuse is rife, and agree to secretly shelter him — though there’s scarcely a doubt that Bobbie, a staunch liberal and proud feminist, would support them in their mission. (Lest the film come over too right-on for Conservative Britain, Brocklehurst’s dialogue sometimes hedges its bets: “Churchill is undoubtedly a great man, but I wish he’d been a bit more supportive of us suffragettes,” Bobbie sighs at one point.)
Thus does Matthews’ film permit occasional notes of real-world ugliness into otherwise dewy-eyed, apple-cheeked entertainment, attractively shot through a veritably gilded lens by DP Kit Fraser. The threat of war never recedes entirely into the background, with the uncertain fate of various children’s fathers hanging anxiously over proceedings, while one scene of an unexpected air strike is genuinely rattling. If the story resolves itself a little too quickly and neatly after touching on more complicated, perilous political realities — complete with concluding title cards detailing assorted characters’ happy endings — that’s because it has a legacy of classic, comforting niceness to honor. Whether viewers will still hold “The Railway Children Return” close to their hearts in 50 years’ time remains to be seen, but no one’s childhood is getting ruined here, either on screen or off.