Railway Children, The (1970)
Release Date: December 26th, 1970 MPAA Rating: G
Director: Lionel Jeffries Actors: Dinah Sheridan, Bernard Cribbins, William Mervyn, Iain Cuthbertson, Jenny Agutter, Sally Thomsett, Gary Warren
oberta “Bobbie” Waterbury (Jenny Agutter) and her siblings Phyllis (Sally Thomsett) and Peter (Gary Warren) live in a lovely, picturesque villa (complete with servants and a grand garden) – though they’re described as ordinary suburban children in a regular home with normal parents with modern conveniences. Taking their pleasant lives (which they call dull) for granted, the three children are in for a shock one snowy Christmas when two black-coated gentlemen arrive to cart their father (Iain Cuthbertson) off to Scotland Yard. Their mother, Mrs. Waterbury (Dinah Sheridan), won’t speak of the incident for weeks and, though the trio of youngsters are curious, they don’t pry for information.
The situation worsens, with money drying up, hired help being let go, and strict governess Aunt Emma (Beatrix Mackey) visiting to keep the kids in their proper places (as if a realistic version of Mary Poppins). To cope, they engage in pranks on the staff, though this ends when the family moves to a small house in the Yorkshire countryside. They’re immediately met with unfriendliness, journeying to an estate with three chimneys, no longer manned by live-in caretakers and full of mice, cobwebs, and upended furniture. They keep their spirits up, however, and find solace in the neighboring bright green fields and a massive, roaring train – the likes of which they’ve only previously seen as a brass toy. Tended by the quirky porter Mr. Perks (Bernard Cribbins), the Oakworth train station causes a stir when an ill Russian man – a writer exposing political corruption, having escaped from a Siberian prison – stumbles off a train onto the platform. He daringly fled captivity to reunite with his missing wife and children. The Waterburys take him in and nurse him back to health, which further sparks Bobbie’s desire for knowledge about her own father’s whereabouts.
Based on the celebrated novel by E. Nesbit, the film is brilliantly arranged from the point of view of the children – eavesdropping on adult conversations, portraying Ruth the maid (Ann Lancaster) as a towering monster descending upon them, and showing an unsociable buggy driver as particularly raspy, scarred, and ugly. Morality issues are also examined, similarly from a child’s perspective, involving stealing coal for warmth, asking outsiders for financial help, interacting with strangers in general, and contending with the unexplained disappearance of a parent. Over the course of the film, tragedies, friendships, heroism, unfavorably interpreted acts of charity, misguided self-respect, and the importance of requiting uncommon benevolence are agreeably balanced through the lead trio’s small adventures.
“The Railway Children” is a well-disposed, family-friendly picture, full of warm characters and kind deeds. Like many movies targeting younger audiences, it transcends mere juvenile diversion with moving scenarios (such as an unusually generous, elderly train rider, played by William Mervyn), delightful music that heightens the poignancy of several moments, very convincing child actors, and a long-awaited, tear-inducing finale (filled with smoke, slow-motion, and soundlessness like something out of a fairy tale). Though a touch overlong and arguably slow – thanks to a focus on separate episodes demonstrating varying virtues – it’s an effective, joyous little picture.
– Mike Massie