When it pulls into cinemas this month, The Railway Children Return will arrive 52 years after 1970’s The Railway Children. Remarkably, Jenny Agutter is reprising her career-making role as Bobbie Waterbury 54 years after she first played it in the BBC’s 1968 Railway Children miniseries, and 22 years after she played the character’s mother in ITV’s 2000 Railway Children TV movie. Suddenly, the 36-year period between Top Gun (1986) and Top Gun: Maverick (2022) doesn’t seem so long.
Although The Railway Children might make us think of trains, it focuses more on a train station. While trains are often the setting for thrillers and action movies, train stations are more often the setting for what we could call inaction movies. A train station suggests journeys stalled, or ended, or yet to begin.
Whereas a train in motion – and particularly one entering a tunnel – has long symbolised sex, train stations have long hosted stories of sexual frustration. The main characters in Cairo Station (1958) and Closely Observed Trains (1966) seem excluded from the sexual experiences others access as easily as stepping aboard a departing train.
On film, the railway station can seem a place apart from the normal world. For the adulterers in Brief Encounter (1945) and Terminal Station (1953), two other films that are fraught with sexual frustration, it’s not what they do inside the station that truly matters, but the impact it would have on the world outside, once they return to it.
The Railway Children Return is in cinemas from 15 July 2022.
Arrival of a Train (1896)
Directors: Auguste and Louis Lumière
Two stories cling to Arrival of a Train. The first is that the 50-second short was one of the first group of films ever commercially exhibited by the Lumière brothers – who have a decent claim to have invented cinema – in Paris in December 1895. The second is that members of the first audience to watch it were so alarmed by moving images of an oncoming train that they fled their seats in panic lest the locomotive run them over.
The first story is false: although it was shot in 1895, Arrival of a Train was not shown until January 1896. The second story is, at best, unverified. But both are illustrative of the place the film has in the popular conception of film history. When the Lumières filmed a train pulling into La Ciotat station, they shot the perfect metaphor for the arrival of filmmaking in the modern world.
Oh, Mr. Porter! (1937)
Director: Marcel Varnel
Remote rural train stations are a fixture in films, and few are as remote – or as rural – as the fictional Buggleskelly Station in Northern Ireland. When an inept English railway worker (Will Hay) is appointed its new stationmaster – the sixth in 12 months – the eccentric townspeople, and the station’s work-shy staff, warn him that the railway is both haunted and cursed. Undeterred, he sets about trying to spruce up the station and improve its reputation.
It’s difficult to convey, through a description of its simple characters or a précis of its slight plot, just what makes Oh, Mr. Porter! so special. But it’s an indication of how perfectly every element of the movie combines into a first-rate comedy that the most famous British film critic of his era, Barry Norman CBE, included it on both his original and revised lists of the 100 best films of the century.
Brief Encounter (1945)
Director: David Lean
Brief Encounter is one of the definitive British films. And it’s fitting that the key scenes in the UK’s equivalent of Casablanca take place not, like Casablanca’s, in a bar and an airport but in the considerably more English settings of a train station and its tea room. It’s at the train station that Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) begins to fall in love with Laura Jessop (Celia Johnson) when he removes grit from her eye in a scene as perfect, and as frequently parodied, as any in British cinema. Both Alec and Laura are married, and they spend the film on the brink of a full-blown affair.
Rarely has any film communicated so effectively the inner agitation of outwardly composed characters. When these subterranean tensions finally erupt, it is, again, at the train station, where Laura considers suicide, in another of the most celebrated scenes in British cinema.
Terminal Station (1953)
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Five years after he made Bicycle Thieves (1948), and one year after it became the first film to top Sight and Sound’s once-a-decade poll to determine the world’s greatest film, master Italian director Vittorio De Sica made his first Hollywood movie with this international co-production. The experience of working with Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick ensured he never made another.
Intended as a star vehicle for Selznick’s wife, Jennifer Jones, Terminal Station owes something to Brief Encounter. It, too, is the story of a married woman who is in love with another man. (The truncated American cut was titled Indiscretions of an American Wife.) Shot in Rome’s famous Terminal Station, the film is not in the class of Bicycle Thieves or Brief Encounter, but it’s still a simmering drama that makes evocative use of one of the great European railway stations.
Cairo Station (1958)
Director: Youssef Chahine
Just as Brief Encounter is one of Britain’s most acclaimed movies, so Cairo Station is one of Egypt’s. While David Lean’s film was ranked second on the BFI’s 1999 list of the greatest British films, Youssef Chahine’s was ranked fourth on the Cairo International Film Festival’s 1996 list of the greatest Egyptian films. It’s a film that looks both forward and back, preserving the neorealist sensibility that had been part of Egyptian cinema since at least Kamal Selim’s classic 1939 drama Al-Azima (The Will), and prefiguring both the plot and atmosphere of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
In fact, Cairo Station has similarities to both Psycho and another Hitchcock classic of the era, Vertigo (1958), and does not suffer by comparison to either. The lead character is a knife-wielding murderer like Psycho’s Norman Bates but motivated by the kind of complex erotic fixation that drives Vertigo’s Scottie Ferguson.
- Cairo Station is currently streaming on Netflix
Closely Observed Trains (1966)
Director: Jiří Menzel
Set at a small station in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia towards the end of the Second World War, Closely Observed Trains is one of the gems of the Czechoslovak New Wave. It’s a rare tragicomedy that actually delivers on that billing: it is both genuinely tragic and genuinely comic.
Search online for reviews of Closely Observed Trains and one adjective repeatedly appears: “charming”. This is often due to the performance of Václav Neckář as the innocent and oversexed young train dispatcher Miloš Hrma who, by becoming involved with a local woman, also becomes involved with the local resistance movement. But the bulk of the credit for the film’s enduring charm must go to its director, Jiří Menzel, and to Bohumil Hrabal, who wrote the source novel and teamed with Menzel to adapt it for the screen. It’s emblematic of their achievement that the film’s ending is simultaneously explosive and understated.
The Railway Children (1970)
Director: Lionel Jeffries
In Edwardian England, the patriarch of the well-to-do Waterbury family is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, forcing his wife and children to relocate from their large London house to a ramshackle cottage in scenic Yorkshire. The famous adventures that follow stem from the children’s newfound hobbies of perching on the embankment to wave at passing trains and befriending denizens of the nearby station.
The Railway Children was steeped in nostalgia when it was made – filming locations included the Brontë Parsonage Museum in the historic village of Haworth – and it is doubly so now that, for more than half a century, it’s been a beloved part of millions of British childhoods. Like Paddington (2014), another great British children’s movie featuring a train station, it proves that gentle characters who are selfless and sincere can be the basis of not just a compelling film, but an outright classic.
Heart of the Angel (1989)
Director: Molly Dineen
Molly Dineen has an invaluable ability for a documentary filmmaker: she is able, through some alchemical combination of personality and directorial technique, to make her subjects reveal their hidden selves in only a few minutes of screen time. It’s a talent she employs throughout Heart of the Angel, which documents two days inside the London Underground’s Angel station as it was in 1989, prior to an extensive slate of renovations. The employees trapped working in the decaying station, and the passengers who trudge through it, seem condemned to colourless lives – but then, in front of Dineen’s camera, they blossom.
First shown as part of 40 Minutes – the same BBC television series that broadcast Dineen’s Home from the Hill (1987) and My African Farm (1988) – Heart of the Angel is a favourite of railway enthusiasts, who prize its footage of the underground in what is, by now, a bygone age.
Central Station (1998)
Director: Walter Salles
Dora (Fernanda Montenegro) earns money by writing letters for illiterate locals at Rio de Janeiro’s Central Station. Unlike other movie train stations, it isn’t an oasis away from the world. Real life – and real death – often intrudes: in the first couple of days we spend there, we see security guards needlessly shoot a thief they’ve already arrested and a woman killed by a bus.
The woman had a son, Josué (Vinícius de Oliveira), whom Dora informally fosters. Their relationship, which develops during the road trip they undertake in search of Josué’s absent father, forms the centre of one of the most internationally acclaimed South American movies of the 1990s. In the US, Central Station earned two Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe while, in Europe, it won both the Golden Bear for best film and the Silver Bear for best actress at Berlin International Film Festival, as well as the BAFTA for best foreign language film.
The Station Agent (2003)
Director: Tom McCarthy
The Station Agent seems like a summation of a century of films set at train stations. Like Oh, Mr. Porter! and The Railway Children, it takes place at an isolated country station and, again like Oh, Mr. Porter!, it concerns a city-dweller who becomes stationmaster. Like Central Station, it features a curmudgeon who reluctantly begins a transformational friendship. Like Closely Observed Trains, it blends upbeat comedy and downbeat drama. Like Brief Encounter and Terminal Station, it’s full of memorable, emotionally charged conversations. And, like Cairo Station, it follows a main character who is disabled and a supporting character who sells refreshments.
But none of this should suggest that The Station Agent is unoriginal. It’s a surprising and idiosyncratic film that loudly announced the arrival of its star, Peter Dinklage, and its writer-director, Tom McCarthy, who have both proven themselves to be major talents in the years since its release.