Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Railway Children

Lionel Jefferies, 1970 (9.0*)
Catherine Morshead, 2000 (miniseries) (9.2*)

Edith Nesbit's wonderful 1906 novel about one English family's children thankfully has two wonderful film adaptations to recommend. They are both faithful to the novel and provide lovable cinematic tributes to her popular work, which is touching and humane without pretension or sentimentality. [see note below about Nesbit herself]

The original is the 1970 film from character actor turned director Lionel Jefferies. A happy family in Victorian London has everything change one night when some strange men come to their home, argue with the father, then leave with him. As a result these new financial hardships, the mother takes the kids and relocates in the countryside, where she barely earns enough for food by writing stories for magazines.

There's not a lot of activity in their new neighborhood, so they take daily walks down the railroad tracks, waving to the train's passengers from a nearby hillside. This somehow seems like a appropriate method of maintaining contact with the outside world, now relegated to nothing but newspaper stories.Some of the passengers always wave back, and include one important railroad man. This unique method of friendly conversation stirs his interest in the children, and the relationship proves mutually beneficial.

Jenny Agutter is wonderful as the oldest child, Bobbie, a young teen, almost a surrogate parent to the other two, Sally and Gary being pre-teens; all are surprisingly independent and risilient. Dinah Sheridan plays the mother, not onscreen nearly as much as the children.

The trains and station are as alive here as human characters, and provide a valuable literary metaphor. In fact, everyone in town gets to know the children through the railroad itself, which is a lifeline to their village. For me, this novel and film said a lot about the passage of time sadly removing our relationships to trains and a gentler, more leisurely time, one without the modern rush of autos and planes, which has removed the social interaction of the bygone era of steam, when most travel was on trains and ships.

The second version is a tv miniseries from 2000, directed by Catherine Morshead. In this version, Richard Attenborough plays the railroad man, Mr. Perk, and Jenny Agutter (Bobbie in the original), plays the childrens' mother, while Jemima Rooper has her original role. I think I may prefer the length of this longer version more, but both are excellent adaptations and make wonderful G-rated family films.

Note: Edith Nesbit's was a British socialist who wanted conditions improved for the impoverished workers of her country, and wrote over 60 books, mostly for or about children (over 40), the ultimate victims of poverty, as due to malnourishment many don't reach adulthood. She and her husband co-founded the socialst organization The Fabian Society, the precursor to the modern Labour Party.

Nesbit wrote about children without writing down to them. They are treated as intelligent, caring, and almost adult in maturity when having to deal with harsh life circumstances. This is likely why her writings are still popular today. In fact, she's considered the first author for children in dealing with the real world and it's problems rather than a fantasy world.

her page at Wikipedia


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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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