Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In 1971 Universal released a superlative version of the children's classic The Railway Children. Unfortunately, because
it was an English movie with a no-star cast, directed by actor Lionel Jeffries, it went straight to television. I
caught most of it in b&w on a 19" set with bad reception, but it was great. Jeffries' handling of his actors, especially
a very young, pre-Walkabout Jenny Agutter, was remarkable. When I saw an LP of the great soundtrack by Johnny Douglas,
I snapped it up. I've never heard of the movie being screened again in the U.S., thirty years later. Naturally I was
excited when the title showed up on a list, and I asked for it. What arrived was this made-for-TV remake, from 2000.
It was kind of a letdown until I watched the show; the new production is basically good. Jenny Agutter returns, 30
years later, in a different role.
The happy London Waterbury family is shattered when their father (Michael Kitchen) is ushered away
one night by mysterious men in black. Mrs. Waterbury (Jenny Agutter) has to take the three children to live in the
country, in a cold house with little to eat. The kids hang out by the rail line and embark on a series of adventures,
endearing themselves to the locals like Perks, the station porter (Gregor Fisher).
They make contact with a bearded man in the back of the 9:15 AM train (Richard Attenborough), and are soon close
friends ... while the oldest child, Roberta (Jemima Rooper) takes most of the responsibility for keeping up morale.
She also yearns to ask her mother the real facts of forbidden subject A: what happened to Daddy?
Handsomely shot and very sweetly directed by Catherine Morshead, The Railway Children is a more realistic
version of the old
Pollyanna story, with less saccharine but a similar
attitude about the basic goodness of people. The central heroine, young Bobbie (Roberta), is played by the beautiful
Jemima Rooper (who the IMDB says just finished starring in an upcoming film version of Ray Bradbury's A Sound of
Thunder), and she's basically the 'Jo' character from Little Women, learning and growing the most. The
kids find out why charity can be an insult coming and going, and that not everyone is willing to see past appearances
and be friendly. But Bobbie's honest outgoing nature is sincere and disarming, and ultimately leads to a happy
reconciliation that feels earned.
Director Morshead doesn't avoid the sentiment, but she keeps it under control. The
episodic nature of the story has each new chapter initiated by something that happens when the kids are hanging around
the railroad tracks - they take in a stranded Russian refugee searching for his family, prevent a train wreck, etc.
Bobbie meets a potential love interest when a boarding school boy (JJ Feild) breaks his leg in a train tunnel, but
all they do is exchange smiles and addresses.
The 'quaint and simple' times of rural England are somewhat idealized, as there's no real poverty to be seen anywhere,
even though it's talked about. The kids aren't starving and have no medical needs, and nobody mentions school, so
I guess they're going to be uneducated train-spotters forever. There's no crime, no homeless people, no obvious inequities.
Mum gets some money by writing stories, ("A clever lady", says the stationmaster) and it's not hard to assume she's
represents the author. Jenny Agutter makes her firm but vulnerable: she played Bobbie in the original show, to great
acclaim. Dinah Sheridan (Breaking the Sound Barrier, The Mirror Crack'd) played Mrs. Waterbury in the original.
Unfortunately, some PC mouthpiece could make a case that either version of The Railway Children could
encourage kids to hang out around railroad tracks, behavior which in reality claims many lives each year, and is
no longer a great place to meet people, if it ever was. Modern trains aren't the beautiful green machines seen here.
For that matter, why railroad tycoon Richard Attenborough rides the tail car of the 9:15 every day seems rather odd.
In the context of the story, it's no big problem.
The telefilm is presented in a handsome letterboxed (but flat) transfer; I wonder if this was originally shot on 16mm? If
it ever had original titles, they've been jettisoned for the Masterpiece Theater format, complete with host,
with the only credits shoehorned in at the end and almost outnumbered by American public television credits. I hope
that someone (Universal?) gets off their caboose and brings out
the original The Railway Children, but this modern remake is very good on its own.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Railway Children rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 28, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2002 Glenn Erickson
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