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The year is 1944; Mancunian children Lily (Beau Gadsdon), Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and Ted (Zac Cudby) reluctantly depart for the countryside as part of the wartime evacuee programme. Their anxieties are allayed when they reach the idyllic village of Oakenshot, where nighttime vistas of stars and wholesome domestic activities abound. The children are billeted with Bobbie Waterbury (Jenny Agutter of the original The Railway Children, 1970), her school headmistress daughter Annie (Sheridan Smith), and grandson Thomas (Austin Haynes). Intrigue develops when the children discover a Black American GI, Abe (KJ Aikens), hiding out in a carriage in the local railway sidings. Abe’s future is precarious owing to racial injustices perpetuated by his own comrades.
Cramming 98 minutes with adventure, it’s nevertheless a gentle film with a great deal of heart, holding the children and their communities at its centre. Agutter, Smith and Hugh Quarshie (who plays General Harrison) all handle their roles competently; in keeping with the film’s focus on the younger generation, though, it’s Gadson and Aikens who bring the story to life. Hamilton is excellent, too, as the not-quite-old-enough Pattie, and Haynes plays Thomas with subtlety. The children are responsible for many of the film’s funnier moments, including Lily’s decision to pull the emergency cord on the evacuee train.
There are similarities, of course, with the fim’s 1970 predecessor, in which Bobbie and her siblings save a local train from disaster. But in The Railway Children Returns, Lily and company are more likely to disrupt the rail network to fight social injustice (evidence, perhaps, of a shift in thinking about what constitutes good citizenship). The film also explores how close children can be to grief, trauma and state-sanctioned violence. From Abe’s underage recruitment to Lily being the ‘man of the house’ in her father’s absence, it acknowledges the burdens children bear for adults.
But for all its well-intentioned Black Lives Matter politics, The Railway Children Returns fails to move beyond nationalistic nostalgia. Every racist act is committed by an American; every saviour is a white English local who says, ‘We don’t do that here.’ It’s galling given that the evacuee programme itself was steeped in racism, with different rules applying to families of colour, and documents from the time revealing bigoted views held by some white families providing billets. In our current cultural context, suggesting that British people are above such behaviour is an anachronism too far. For if young people are capable of coping with war, it stands to reason that they can understand the complexities of their own identities and pasts. It’s a shame, then, that the film goes so hard on pushing the myth of a progressive England that it sells its primary audience short.
► The Railway Children Return is in UK cinemas now.
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