“Railway Children” proves that a feature film can deal with the dark horrors and endless pain of war without showing a single shot being fired. The painful brutal realities of armed conflicts are magnified as they are presented through the tear-filled eyes and broken hearts of children.
The movie – opening in theaters Sept. 23 – follows three evacuee children – Lily (Beau Gadsdon), Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and Ted (Zac Cudby) Watts – who in 1944 are sent by their mother from Salford to the Yorkshire village of Oakworth. British children were sent away from major cities during World War II to protect them from the relentless bombing of major cities by the Germans.
The three siblings are met at the train station platform in the quaint and quiet community of Oakworth by Bobbie Waterbury (Jenny Agutter), her daughter, Annie (Sheridan Smith) and grandson Thomas (Austin Haynes). They take the children into their home in hopes of giving them a safe and settled life.
That changes when the children find an injured American soldier, Abe (KJ Aikens), hiding out in the railyard where they play. He tells them he is a soldier on a secret mission while in reality, he has gone AWOL because of his treatment by fellow soldiers. This puts the three children in the middle of some very complicated political and social issues.
Director Morgan Matthews (“A Brilliant Young Mind”) weaves together a solid story of the peace the children find when they are transported to a relatively safe place with the inner turmoil they feel because of all the pain caused by the war. This conflict is played out against a pastoral setting that helps emphasize the emotional rollercoaster the children are facing.
An additional level is added through the racism Abe faces. He is so determined to fight in the war that Abe lies about his age. His illusions are shattered when he discovers that there is a bigger enemy to tackle because of the color of his skin.
The performances in “Railway Children” are generally good with Gadsdon’s character of Lily being one of the more standout efforts. Despite her young age, she has quickly matured into the protector and caregiver that her siblings need.
The most interesting casting is Agutter (“Call the Midwife”) who reprises her role from a 1999 TV movie where she played the mother who takes in a group of children. She serves as a nice link to this movie as “Railway Children” is more of a continuation story than a remake of the original source material.
“Railway Children” uses the children as the focal point but that means Agutter’s character is limited to walking in and out of a room to deliver a few lines. She’s far too talented and her link to the story is so deep that her character should have been used to a larger degree.
This production is one of numerous adaptations of a children’s book by Edith Nesbit published in 1905. “Railway Children” diverts the most from the plot of Nesbit’s book that has the family moving to the countryside when the father is falsely accused of spying.
The new take on the story from writers Daniel Brocklehurst and Jemma Rogers gets an additional emotional bump because of the uncertainty of the fate of the father of the children. The storyline dealing with the young soldier also opens up the film to more social issues.
The writers do treat the social and emotional issues with a light hand. This opens the film up to those who don’t like productions that dig deep into serious issues especially when it has a violent nature at the heart. But, the soft approach does make the movie come across more like a made-for-TV offering than a feature film.
Despite the light approach, “Railway Children” comes from a place of having a big heart. It deals with issues to the point of being engaging but not to the level of being emotionally unforgettable.
Cast: Beau Gadsdon, Eden Hamilton, KJ Aikens, Jenny Agutter, Sheridan Smith, Austin Haynes, Zac Cudby.
Director: Morgan Matthews
Rated: PG for violence, language, thematic material
Running time: 100 minutes.