By Roshan Chandy
Legacy sequels are no new thing to this day and age of movies.
You know, the concept of taking a far-from-perfect cult classic from the 20th Century and giving it an immaculate, shining, golden 21st Century update in the form of a follow-up.
George Miller did it with ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (2015) which was a musical on four wheels and amongst the greatest action movies of all time. Denis Villeneuve did it with ‘Blade Runner 2049’ (2017) which is one of the greatest films of all time and the best film of the 21st Century thus far.
Tom Cruise did it recently with record-breaking results and a Shakespearean amount of father-son pathos in ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ (2022). But, best of all, was ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ (2018) which took everything that was both so brilliant and so bad about the original ‘Mary Poppins’ (1968) and did it bigger and better with an Emily Blunt-sized smile filling in for Julie Andrews’ spoonful of sugar…
As far as ‘The Railway Children’ (1970) is concerned, I’ve never had the fondest memories about that 70s classic the way some people have.
It was always an innocuous guilty pleasure for me rather than a cinematic masterpiece. I felt it sugarcoated the very real emotional oofrey of children having their father taken away and being sent away to the countryside without ever really cutting to the heart of the light and shade that is oh so omnipresent in our childhood.
There’s nothing in it par Jenny Agutter that is a patch on the same era and similarly Yorkshire-set ‘Kes’ (1969) by Ken Loach. In its favour, it does have Bernard Cribbins as the station porter in one of his very best roles. And it did give birth to one of the top 5 of British cinema’s greatest actresses – Jenny Agutter…
I’ve always thought Mrs Agutter was one of the best child actresses ever on screen – up there with Dai Bradley in ‘Kes’, Linda Blair in ‘The Exorcist’ (1973) and Thomas Turgoose in ‘This is England’ (2006). What’s remarkable and amazing is the manner in which she has crafted a life-long career as a character actress the size and calibre of Dames Maggie Smith or Judi Dench.
I love ‘Call the Midwife’ despite being ever so resistant to childbirth porn because she’s simply so brilliant. Nowadays, like Gemma Arterton or Julie Andrews, she’s a mouth-melting teapot on the mantlepiece of classic British cinema. The kind of actress of whom no matter who she’s playing or what she’s doing, always steals the show.
So does ‘The Railway Children Return’ (2022) top the original and where does it sit in the grand mythology of legacy sequels? I can safely say it’s up there with ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ and ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ as one of those few generations later sequels that is actually much, much better than the original.
First things first, Jenny Agutter is outstanding in one of her very finest performances – possibly her best since the 1970 original. She’s back on the screen here as the same Roberta in the same Yorkshire Dales, sheepish scenery; only this time adopting the Aunt Bessie-esque role of the nanny taking in a group of evacuees.
It would have been easier and obvious to channel Dinah Sheridan who was so fantastic as the mother figure of the original that once played mommy darling to Jenny and her little brothers and sisters.
Agutter’s performance here, however, is less an impersonation than an Eccles Cake of “Call Me Midwife” loveliness. She embellishes the screen with such movie star warmth and movie-making magic. She’s the kind of fun, nephews and nieces’ favourite wartime Aunt Bessie that Gemma Arterton or Julie Andrews is in every one of their best roles.
She’s a national treasure worthy of the Duke of York’s Theatre. It’s easily the warmest, loveliest, most BAFTA-iest performance of the year. The sort of thing that gives Kate Winslet or Emma Thompson a run for their money and mommyness.
The child cast are superb too. I especially liked the young girl, Beau Gadson, who fills the little Aggy-shaped hole in our hearts. Gadson is clearly channeling the young Jenny Agutter in her youthfulness, sprightly spirit and intuition.
However, she actually looks the spitting image of a young, teenage Gemma Arterton who I’ve often claimed is the next Jenny Agutter, one of Britain’s best actresses and another Bakewell tart of British loveliness. The late Bernard Cribbins is paid a very special tribute to a very special man to 20th century British cinema. The station porter here is portrayed by John Bradley who was a very special part of ‘Game of Thrones’ (2011-2019) as Samwell Tarley.
He’s fabulous at adopting Bernard’s Yorkshire accent and every busy-body klutziness. It’s as much a throwback, a tribute, a renaissance and an improvement on a classic performance as Lin Manuel-Miranda did when he updated and improved on Dick Van Dyke’s impressively awful Cockney rhyming rendition from the original ‘Mary Poppins’.
My biggest gripe with the 1970s ‘Railway Children’ was its lack of light and shade and quite how tame it was. You find more nit and grit in ‘We Bought A Zoo’ (2011) (even with the preposterousness of Scarlett Johansson as a zookeeper!) or any Nicholas Sparks mushy mess of a movie. What I really hungered for was a bit of emotional oomph and a tad more toughness from a movie actually about a father being taken away as a spy.
That’s always what being a child is all about. It’s sunny and scary, light and dark, every glory is every grotesquery. It turns out this sequel has plenty a helping of shade and a handful of heart. That doesn’t just come from the fact that it’s about children from Salford being evacuated to Yorkshire because of the war which is a very heart-wrenching and dark prospect in itself.
All the young actors are excellent at encapsulating everything that is oh so heartbreaking and lump-in-throatness about being sent to live with strangers in the great British outdoors. Thanks to their exceptional adolescent performances, you really get a sense that these kids are pikes out of pond, pandas out of their enclosures, salmon out of their rivers, little tots in the big city.
You crave and long for their return to their parents no matter how magical the marvelous Mrs Agutter might be. There’s genuine pediatric light and dark, nit and grit here redolent of William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ or Fernando Meirelles’ ‘City of God’ (2002) only sugar-charged with the kind of sunshiny, sunny sided wholesomeness that made us fall in love with Julie Andrews and the musicals of the 60s.
The real emotional sucker punch doesn’t come, though, from childhood evacuation or a child’s nervous longing to be returned to their beloved mas and pas. That comes from an unexpected joie de vivre of Segregation commentary that sits right in an August Wilson theatre production.
Director Morgan Matthews possesses Wilson’s Herculian, Balzacian clout, political polemicism and judgment when it comes to treatising the story of a deserter black boy soldier. He’s played with a tinge and tid-bit of the young Denzel Washington by KJ Aikens and is an integral jigsaw piece in the story’s climax involving a choo choo train, American WW2 soldiers and the boy’s black father (played with more than a touch of Clarke Peters by the great Hugh Quarshie).
I hope we get more of this young actor. He’s outstanding! He really cuts to the heart of racist political satire. About blacks struggling to find their place and voice in a time, epoch and place that didn’t quite accept them. With a fisticuff and batsqueak of sentimentality and Captain America jingoism that people always fell in love with about those old Marvel comics!
Just short of a movie featuring Jenny Agutter, Gemma Arterton and Julie Andrews all under one roof, ‘The Railway Children Return’ is the best legacy sequel since ‘Mary Poppins Returns’. It builds and betters the original; honoring everything that made it so great while adding a dozen doses of realism and Dickensian black n’ whitery to the powder.
Rarely have I found myself so enamoured by a pulsing sugar rush of emotional investment maple-tinged with a quota of love trumping prejudice and a very welcome spoonful of treacle. They don’t make movies like this anymore – not since ‘Mary Poppins’ or ‘Sound of Music’ (1965).
Bravo all of you and god bless Jenny Agutter! What a national treasure she is!
Featured Image: StudioCanal
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