Railway Children is the sequel to a 1970 British film that's mostly unknown here in the United States. That's likely why they shortened the title. In England – and, in fact, in the end credits – the film is formally titled The Railway Children Return. Regardless of what it's called, this is a weirdly misguided affair. Too dark for kids and too simplistic for adults, it makes a potentially engrossing idea come off as bland and unmemorable.
The year is 1944. World War II is raging, with bombs being dropped on Britain. Many parents are putting their children on trains, sending them into the countryside to temporarily live with host families. Among them are 14-year-old Lily Watts (Beau Gadsdon) and her younger siblings Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and Ted (Zac Cudby). They end up staying with Bobbie Waterbury (Jenny Agutter, reprising her role from the original), her daughter Annie (Sheridan Smith), and her grandson Thomas (Austin Haynes). Bobbie didn't initially plan to take in three kids, meaning that the siblings have to share a cramped room.
A great deal of dramatic promise resides in the idea of children being shipped off for protection during a war. You might reasonably think Railway Children would delve into how Lily, Pattie, and Ted adjust to being in a stranger's home. Or the homesickness and worry they would certainly feel. Or what it's like to be an innocent child attempting to make sense of a very adult war. But no, we get a scene where everyone comically slips in some mud, plus a food fight. The movie studiously avoids even remotely digging into how the kids feel about their predicament.
Then the real plot kicks in, and it's woefully awkward. Lily and crew find an injured Black American soldier named Abe (KJ Aikens) hiding in one of the train cars at the local railyard. He's a deserter, being searched for by the military police. Railway Children suddenly morphs into a story of racism, as we learn Abe has seen the bigotry directed toward Black troops and wants no part of it. The Watts children attempt to help him clear his name. The story's resolution of Abe's dilemma is so absurd, so unrealistic, and so contrived that I can't believe director Morgan Matthews presents it with a straight face.
Who thought this was a good idea? Operation Pied Piper, which saw millions of English children evacuated from cities during WWII to protect them from German air raids, is an inherently riveting historical fact. A great, important film could be made from exploring the impact of that on young people who endured it. Railway Children seems afraid of getting anywhere close to the truth. Moving away from the Watts family to focus on Abe is a misstep of massive proportions. Caring about him is difficult when such a compelling idea is being left on the table. And when the racism angle is played out in such a perfunctory, obvious fashion, it only emphasizes how off-course the movie has become.
In fairness, this is not a terrible picture. Beau Gadsdon (Star Wars: Rogue One) is terrific as the tough, protective Lily, and Jenny Agutter is typically fine as Bobbie, even if she doesn't get enough screen time. The production design and cinematography are nice, as well. Despite those qualities, Railway Children simply isn't deep enough to sustain one's interest. The movie co-opts a profound piece of history, sadly turning it into something shallow.
out of four
Railway Children is rated PG for thematic material, some violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.