Jenny Agutter became a British cinema hall-of-famer as Roberta, or Bobbie, in the beloved 1970s family classic The Railway Children, about three children forced by circumstances to move into a cottage in Yorkshire with their mother and have adventures with steam trains. She returned to play the mother in a 2000 TV movie version, and now Agutter is back as her original character, 40 years her senior, in this scintillating sequel that portrays a new generation of railroad kids in 1944, a reboot conceived and co-written by producer Jemma Rodgers and directed by Morgan Matthews.
Maybe it’s a little self-conscious in the way it revives and re-imagines the classic plot points, and there could be historical authenticity issues. Would the US Army Military Police really have been authorized to arrest an underage British citizen and transport her around the country in handcuffs? But there’s quite a bit of fun channeling bygone classics like Hue and Cry and Whistle Down the Wind.
Three evacuated children from wartime Manchester, Lily (Beau Gadsdon), Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and Ted (Zac Cudby) arrive in the very same village where Roberta has apparently left and is now a kind grandmother: her daughter (Sheridan Smith) is the headmaster of the local school and has a somewhat Just-William-esque son named Thomas (Austin Haynes), whose father has left the RAF to fight the Germans. Railway Children fans could be forgiven for wondering if any more legacy characters from the original movie will be revived, or if we’ll find out if Bobbie really is with Jim, grandson of the “Old Gentleman” in the first one. story is married, as seemed plausible. Well, suffice it to say, we find that as a young woman, Bobbie became a convinced suffragette and, on those grounds, comes very close to the blasphemy of disagreeing with Winston Churchill. Now it seems that the family apparently has a friendly old uncle or great-uncle, played by Tom Courtenay, who is a bit quiet in the War Office.
Lily, Pattie and Ted wander around with their new friend Thomas, get involved in scrapes with the local kids who hate them, and get to know peppered stationmaster Richard, played by John Bradley. But the adults are aware of tensions with the US military police who have a racist attitude towards the African-American GIs popular in the village. This adult problem becomes reality in the children’s lives when they find a wounded, shivering black American soldier hiding in one of the locomotives in a siding; this is Abe (Kenneth Aikens), sternly telling them that he is on a secret mission and under no circumstances should they tell anyone he is there. Seriously, the four children get him food and supplies and agree to hide him in their house.
This is a film with a tad more real-world knowledge than its 1970s predecessor, at least in part because it features child actors who are the same age as their characters. The now legendary scene from the first film where Bobbie sees her father through the steam on the platform – a scene that has become more iconic than the creators could have ever imagined – is repeated and doubled in a new dream Lily has, in a much more serious one. context. And there are more shenanigans where signs to a passing train are held up and brought to a halt. It’s a kind and ingenious tribute to the innocent, good-natured spirit of the original.