Like A British ‘Little Women’ — ‘The Railway Children’ Reviewed

by Rachel Bellwoar

While Lionel JeffriesThe Railway Children is a Christmas staple in the UK, it hasn’t always been easy to find in the US (or at least not on physical media). Anchor Bay released a DVD in 2003, but that’s expensive now and difficult to buy new. Kino Lorber is finally putting the film back in circulation.

Starring Jenny Agutter (Call the Midwife), Dinah Sheridan (Genevieve), and Bernard Cribbins (Doctor Who), nothing throws off a perfect Christmas like a knock on the door from Scotland Yard. It’s like how an episode of The Sopranos would begin, if The Sopranos was told from the point of view of Tony’s kids. Bobbie (Agutter) and her siblings, Phyllis (Sally Thomsett) and Peter (Gary Warren), are caught completely off guard. They don’t know why their father (Ian Cuthbertson) is being taken by the police but any hope they had of their mother (Sheridan) explaining gets squashed the moment she sends them to bed.

Luckily the children don’t fight her on this, but for all that Mrs. Waterbury is able to keep their father’s whereabouts a secret, she can’t shield her children from feeling the effects. When money becomes tight, the Waterburys move to the countryside and it is there that most of the movie takes place.

Earlier, I compared the film to The Sopranos and, if written differently, it’s amazing how it could’ve gone that route. But the truth is The Railway Children is the furthest thing from an HBO series. According to filmmaker and film historian Paul Anthony Nelson in his commentary, the reason Jeffries (who might be best known for playing Grandpa in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) wanted to adapt Edith Nesbitt‘s book is because he didn’t like the direction films were going in, with regards to sex and violence. Jeffries wanted to make family films and The Railway Children is very similar in tone to Little Women, except less tragic.

It’s not that the Waterburys don’t have money troubles, but their situation never seems too dire. When Bobbie describes her old life in voiceover, for example, she says they were “ordinary suburban children” even though their house had servant bells like Downton Abbey. When they first arrive at their new home, it’s like a house from a horror movie, but by the next morning they have china plates on display (because apparently they didn’t have to sell their finer dishes). None of the children have to work and anytime there’s trouble they always find someone willing to help or let payment slide for a while. It’s all a little too cozy sometimes, yet the attitude of the characters makes them easy to like, even if they don’t always realize their privilege.

Nelson’s commentary is very polished and confident. His pacing is especially impressive, as there’s never any sense that he’s repeating himself to fill up time. Jeffries was Roman Catholic, and in the film, there are multiple references to religion, but interestingly the court case that Mr. Waterbury’s storyline was inspired by dealt with anti-Semitism.

The Railway Children is available on Blu-Ray and DVD now from Kino Lorber. The film is wholesome and a little unrealistic, yet still a fun watch thanks to the child actors (though Thomsett was actually 20 at the time of filming) and cheeky musical cues.