The Little Mermaid
- 03 Jun - 09 Jun, 2023
Lionel Jeffries’ 1970 The Railway Children is a warm, likeable, jolly jape featuring plummy kids waving at the 9:15 to London, iced buns, paper chases and Bernard Cribbins flitting between comedy and pathos, all wrapped up in surprisingly timely concerns about downsizing and being kind to immigrants. The presence of OG Railway Child Jenny Agutter, reprising her role as Bobbie in this tougher but still kid-friendly re-spin, suggests this is a legacy sequel. But while Morgan Matthews’ film embraces plot cores, thematic ideas and visual motifs from the first film, it mostly does its own thing narratively.
The film’s smartest decision is to locate the kids-have-larks-in-the country gambit within the evacuation of children from major cities during World War II, adding a tangible undercurrent of fear that is maintained throughout. So, mature Lily (Beau Gadsdon), headstrong Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and cheeky scamp Ted (Zac Cudby) are packed off to Oakworth and taken in by head teacher (and Bobbie’s daughter) Annie (Sheridan Smith), her son Thomas (Austin Haynes) becoming fast friends with his new housemates. The first half-hour or so is a likeable set of hi-jinx – shenanigans with chickens, mud, secret hideouts and run-ins with locals who chuck conkers and coal — that are elevated through the chemistry between Smith and the young actors. Things take a more dramatic turn when the gang discovers Abe (KJ Aikens), a young, injured African-American GI who spins an unconvincing line about being on a secret mission. The kids help the mysterious stranger without the knowledge of the grown-ups.
The nods to the original are subtle and the film doesn’t share much of the original’s interest and feel for the golden age of steam. Floating around the fringes, Agutter’s Bobbie is believably a former suffragette (there is a conversation about the lack of women in Whitehall that comes out of nowhere) and Tom Courtenay is a warm presence as Bobbie’s Churchill-impersonating brother-in-law, Uncle Walter.
It lacks anything that truly excites and delights, some of it is too on the nose, and the climax devolves into kids-saving-the-day 101 that plays against some of the earlier seriousness. But the filmmaking is well-crafted, Danny Brocklehurst’s screenplay adds some grit and Matthews gets good performances from his young actors.