A 40th birthday is a landmark, but usually signifies a few signs of ageing the first grey hairs, a bit of flab, not quite as tight as before. The same could be said of the late Lionel Jeffries childrens classic, lovingly remastered and never looking better. It still has the wonderful performances, the great use of the English countryside, and crisp costumes, but as a story it reveals its episodic structure.
Originally it was a BBC series, with half-hour stories which probably worked better than the film and it starred Jenny Agutter, who else? In the movie, once the children move to Yorkshire and get used to life without dad and being poor, the film splits into a series of adventures a Russian arrives, they find his wife, a boy breaks his leg, they save him, the track collapses, they stop the train, etc. It also produces quite a long running time for a childrens film, and there are a few longeurs.
Having said all of that, its still a sweet, charmingly old-fashioned, and surprisingly funny film, with performances that stand the test of time. When Agutter holds the hand of the boy with the broken leg, her siblings exclaim: Lordy, theyll have to get married now. Agutter is just wonderful as Bobbie, the older sibling who, of course, was actually two years younger than Thompsett. She is content to look adorable all goofy teeth and dimples, who gets terribly excited at the news there is to be a paper chase, then asks whats a paper chase?. Gary Warren as Pete is rather underrated, his face when asked to kiss old battleaxe aunt Elsa is a picture.
Then theres that ending. According to Agutter its the only film grown men admit to crying to, and that list just got one name longer. If you dont shed a tear as the steam clears its simple youre not human.
Its such a shame director Jeffries missed his films 40th birthday by just months, as he would have loved the attention his film is still getting. He was very determined his film should look and feel a certain way, and in that sense the film is a success it captures a very specifically English, Edwardian period of history perfectly.
The film has been nicely spruced up for this 40th Anniversary Release, and the DVD also includes a few special features, although nothing particularly extraordinary.
Overall Verdict: Childrens classic that might be looking a little frayed at the edges and creaky, but still has a charm and atmosphere all of its own.
Retrospective documentary: Then And Now
Interviews with Jenny Agutter, Sally Thompsett, Bernard Cribbins and childrens author Jacqueline Wilson.
Reviewer: Mike Martin