The Railway Children

Dir: Lionel Jefferies
Star: Jenny Agutter, Gary Warren, Sally Thomsett, Dinah Sheridan

Yeah, I know. The same man whose 2009 movie of the year was Martyrs, gets all gooey-eyed over a U-rated film made forty years ago. But it never fails: it's just about perfect at what it does, and may be the finest debut feature by a director of all time. And what it does, is evoke an era of unremitting goodness, where no-one was ever cruel or unkind, and things always turned out for the best. It is, of course, completely unrealistic, but Jefferies and his team doing a miraculous job of creating such a universe, and making the viewer buy in to that. And there's no alternative, since there are really no protagonists outside the three children. They, and their mother, have to move to Yorkshire after the father is arrested for espionage. There, after a dicey start, they befriend the locals and an old gentlemen on a passing train, who waves to them every day. Can he also help them get re-united with their father?

Well, if you've seen this, you'll know the answer to that - and the phrase "Daddy, my Daddy!" will probably be sufficent to send you into a sniffling ball, regardless of age. For this is not just a film for children, but about childhood, and growing up, and so can be enjoyed by anyone whose heart is not completely made from stone. It's very faithful to E.Nesbit's classic story, even taking across the Socialist undertones (Nesbit was an associate of George Bernard Shaw), as revealed by both the Tsarist refugee, and the basic plot of a wrongfully imprisoned man. However, it is beguilingly class-unconscious; Bobbie (Agutter) describes her family as "ordinary," despite the multiple servants that inhabit their house. Such things are very, very subtly handled, however. It helps that the lead actors and actresses are great, even if both Agutter an Thomsett are much older than the characters they portray - the former had just finished shooting the not-so family friendly Walkabout, while the latter was aged twenty at the time, and apparently had a clause in her contract not to be seen drinking or smoking during filming. If they'd been making To Catch a Predator at that time, she'd have been an ideal lure.

The supporting characters are equally as good. In the viewing for this piece, Sheridan's grace and poise as mother was particularly outstanding, as she tries to keep the horrors of everyday life away from her children, and provide them with a strong moral core. The cinematography and setting are similarly wonderful, and it all combines in a way calculated to make even the most hard-hearted and cynical exploitation fan - and, in the rest of my life and 99% of my movie choices, I stand guilty as charged - regress to an age of innocence, without engaging in cloying sentimentality. Everyone has a weak spot, and I'm not ashamed to admit that this film is mine.

[February 2010]

Tissues ahoy
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