Jenny Agutter and Bernard Cribbins star in this enduring adaptation of E Nesbit's classic children's story. After their father disappears, three Edwardian children move to the country where the local railway becomes a source of hope and adventure.
A sweet and innocent reminder of what children's films used to be like and, a little less innocently perhaps, the film that launched Jenny Agutter's career as England's poshest pin-up, The Railway Children has endured extremely well. Sensitive without being sentimental, moving but never quite mawkish, Lionel Jeffries' adaptation of E Nesbit's book succeeds on the back of its quiet wit, great performances, and its refusal to patronise.
Despite the quaint setting, the set-up is unexpectedly dark. Bobby (Agutter), Phyllis (Thomsett) and Peter (Warren) are the well-heeled children whose father (Cuthbertson) is mysteriously taken away. With the family on its uppers, the kids and their unhappy mother (Sheridan) move to the country. There the local steam train becomes the focus of their lives and through it each of them undergoes a sort of personal discovery. But it's adolescent Bobby, fascinated by an anonymous passenger, who feels this experience most keenly, and it's she who sees in the train an opportunity to track down their father.
Support comes from the avuncular Bernard Cribbins and the cheerfully bumbling Lionel Jeffries. Behind the camera, Jeffries is impressively subtle, playing various strands of the story off against one another and generating some genuinely touching moments. With its puffing steam train and rolling countryside there's no denying that part of the film's appeal is its rosy evocation of a fantasy England. But it's hard to resist when the characters are so clearly stimulated by the world in which they find themselves, and Agutter's performance is at least equal to that which she'd give the following year, in Nicolas Roeg's rather less cosy coming-of-age tale Walkabout.