‘Railway Children’ is an ordinary and puzzling ride

“Railway Children” (2022) – During WWII, the German military relentlessly bombed British cities, as residents of all ages were forced to repeatedly dodge deadly projectiles. It was a part of their daily lives, like going to work or making supper.  Those nightmarish times could be especially cruel on the most vulnerable. 

Therefore, the British government enacted Operation Pied Piper in 1939, which relocated about 3 million people during the movement’s first four days, according to an Oct. 22, 2021 DefenseMediaNetwork article written by Dwight Jon Zimmerman. 

Most evacuees were children, and the action sent them to rural UK communities and also outside the British Isles.

Parents’ hearts were torn in two, but safe, temporary partings top the potential for worse-case scenarios in the city centers. 

Director Morgan Matthews and writers Daniel Brocklehurst and Jemma Rodgers retell this period of history in “Railway Children”, a follow-up to 1970’s “The Railway Children”, a film set in 1905.

Fifty-two years have passed since the original movie graced steel tracks, but hey, “Top Gun: Maverick” flew into cinemas 36 years after “Top Gun”, so let’s load a new locomotive with “Railway Children”.

Admittedly, this critic hasn’t seen director Lionel Jeffries’ 1970 family drama, based on Edith Nesbit’s 1906 novel.  However, this WWII story, where siblings Lily (Beau Gadsdon), Pattie (Eden Hamilton), and Ted Watts (Zac Cudby) travel from Manchester (Salford to be exact) to the Oakworth countryside, unfortunately runs off-track, primarily because the film doesn’t seem to exactly know what to do with the Watts youth contingent. 

Lily (Beau Gadsdson), Ted (Zac Gudby), Thomas (Austin Haynes), and Pattie (Eden Hamilton)

Mama Watts (a single mom) and scores of other parents agonize with the emotional strain of sending their offspring off to Yorkshire by train, and the feeling is mutual with the younglings.  Of course, adults in the rural destination will look after them, but Oakworth isn’t home. 

Matthews, Brocklehurst, and Rodgers have miles of opportunities to feature separation anxiety, play up the stranger-in-a-strange-land angle, and take their film in a comic or dramatic route.  No matter the direction, one would assume that teenage Lily and elementary school-aged Pattie and Ted would carry the primary focus, and the movie would highlight the kids’ angst and growth, and maybe offer some hijinks along the way.    

This PG-flick lays out some of those cinematic and character tropes.  We learn why Mother Watts is a single parent, and the trio becomes entangled – a little – in adjusting to their new environment, but for some reason, but the filmmakers thought it was amusing to have several boys “go number 1” on the side of the tracks.  What a riot!

Anyway, the kiddos’ main focus becomes derailed when the Watts spawn and Oakworth tots discover an American soldier (KJ Aikens) deserting the U.S. military.  American Military Police are after him, and Lily and company take ownership to get the slightly wounded combatant back to Manchester for medical treatment. 

So, MPs are the antagonists, and the local youths – in the know – have to avoid them and nearby parental units to fulfill their new duty. 

Look, cinematographer Kit Fraser expertly captures a lovely, springtime small-town feel with grassy greens and blue skies, and costume designer Dinah Collin seems to get 1944 fashion correct.  The kids are competent actors, as well, but the film’s aforementioned oddball detour becomes the main plot thread, one about as curious and engaging as a Wednesday evening trip to the pharmacy. 

Thomas (Haynes), Lily (Gadsdon), Ted (Cudby), and Pattie (Hamilton)

One might suppose that Matthews wants to draw a parallel with Abe (Aikens) and the Watts youngsters, all coping with the same anxiety of feeling stuck in Yorkshire and far from home.  Sure, but the film’s presumed original intent and focus on Lily, Pattie, and Ted’s tale are compromised. 

Even an Oakworth local, 10-year-old Thomas (Austin Haynes) – not the Watts tykes – outruns a train during the third act.  Yes, this wonderkid is that fast.  Someone hire him for “The Flash” (2023). 

Well, this family flick does offer some pleasant moments with two-time Oscar nominee Tom Courtenay (“Doctor Zhivago” (1965), “The Dresser” (1983), “45 Years” (2015)), so there’s that.  “Railway Children” isn’t a bad movie.  It will capably occupy your kids for 95 minutes, but this film is an ordinary and puzzling ride.

⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed by:  Morgan Matthews

Written by:  Daniel Brocklehurst and Jemma Rodgers

Starring:  Beau Gadsdon, Eden Hamilton, Zac Cudby, Jenny Agutter, John Bradley, Sheridan Smith, and Tom Courtenay

Runtime:  95 minutes

Rated: PG

Image credits: StudioCanal

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