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THE Railway Children

The Railway Children
Carlton Television
2000 / Color / 1:78 flat letterbox / 108 min. / Street Date October 1, 2002 / $19.95
Starring Jenny Agutter, Richard Attenborough, Jemima Rooper, Michael Kitchen, Gregor Fisher
Cinematography John Daly
Production Designer Tim Hutchinson
Film Editor Don Fairservice
Original Music Simon Lacey
Written by Simon Nye from a novel by Edith Nesbit
Produced by Jonathan Powell, Charles Elton
Directed by Catherine Morshead

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.. Naturally I was excited when the title showed up on a DVD 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 Waterbury family London of London 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 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 a similar but less saccharine 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 or going, and that not everyone is willing to look beyond appearances and be friendly. But Bobbie's honest outgoing nature is sincere and disarming, and ultimately leads to a happy reconciliation that feels earned, even though all she does is capture the interest of a powerful and influential man. Which I suppose is how the world really works, except most of the time the favors of the rich have a price.

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, 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 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. Railroad yards are no longer a great place to meet people, if they ever were. Modern trains are also not 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 that comes complete with host. The only credits are 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 28, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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