The Railway Children

Dir: Catherine Morshead
Star: Jemima Rooper, Jenny Agutter, Jack Blumenau, Gregor Fisher

Considering the 1970 version is an utter classic, I was unsure about giving this a shot, especially after the abomination which was the 2008 BBC adaptation of Tess, which was just unwatchable. This is nowhere near as bad. Indeed, in isolation, it's pretty good. However, despite a screenplay by the creator of Men Behaving Badly (!), this doesn't bring anything new to the party, except a couple of odd, anachronistic comments such as one about the village doctor having warm hands, and a bit of class war with a barge family. Otherwise, while well-acted, nicely shot, and almost the match of the original in many way, it's just so entirely superfluous. They would have been as well re-releasing the original. It's not just based on the same source, and tells the same story, of three children, separated from their father, who have to move with their mother to a rural town by a railway line. It takes the same elements of the story and unveils them in the same way. Scenes are shot for shot; lines delivered identically. But the sum of the parts is short of the whole.

Agutter is involved in an adaptation for the third time; after playing eldest daughter Bobbie in film and TV versions, here, she's the mother, and is likely the equal of . I'll admit, I did smile when this Bobbie (Rooper) asks her, "Didn't you ever walk on the railway lines when you were little?", and Agutter replies, "Yes," with a little smile. and is likely the equal of Dinah Sheridan. Surprisingly, perhaps, Fisher nails the role of porter Albert Perks, in a way that may even surpass Bernard Cribbins. I think the problems are elsewhere, with the first being that the father here is a lot less memorable. In the original, you can see why he'd inspire such devotion, through scenes such as his enthusiastic belief in fairies. Here, he's barely established before he's whisked away, and that weakens the rest of the proceedings. At the end when - and I trust I'm not spoiling this for anyone - he's reunited with Bobbie, it provokes an "Awww, that's nice," rather than the full-on throat lumpiness of "Daddy, my Daddy!" from the 1970 version. Oh, God: the mere thought and now, I'm sniffling. Hang on.

There, that's better. Where were we? Right. The children are probably the other issue. I was distracted initially by the somewhat odd-looking Rooper; her face is too flat, almost pie-like. But, I have to say, she gradually won me over with a decent performance; the other kids, not so much, being almost entirely forgettable. Maybe it should have been like the original, where 11-year-old Phyllis was played by 20-year-old Sally Thomsett, There certainly isn't the same sense of unshakeable family, with these feeling more like three children from separate homes, that hang out now and again. I am probably being a bit harsh in some ways: as the rating reflects, this is certainly not a disaster. But when you take on a film that's so beloved, you have an awful lot to which you must live up. Despite a brave effort, failure was almost a foregone conclusion.

[February 2014]

A sleeper hit?
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