Editor’s Note: In this feature, running every other week, Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald shares her love of certain movies and what makes them great  in the hope of inspiring some of your at-home entertainment choices.

The 1970 British film version of E. Nesbit’s classic “The Railway Children” isn’t really a Christmas movie. There’s a tree and decorations in the early scenes, but most of it takes place over spring and summer in the abundantly green Yorkshire hills. But for me, it’s the first movie I think of when the holidays approach. I grew up mostly in Canada, back when the CBC would always air “The Railway Children” on television on Christmas night. After a dizzying day of presents and visitors and too many cookies, it was a welcome tradition to sit quietly in our semidark den, disappearing into a story from the turn of the last century in which three siblings — two girls and a boy, just like my family — had adventures and, ultimately, found happiness.

Probably a lot of us have holiday movies like this; something that we associate with childhood and a faint sense of pine-scented, twinkle-lit wonder. Christmas often isn’t perfect, but our Christmas movies always are. I watched “The Railway Children” when I was very young, never dreaming that I would grow up to write about movies and the hold they have on us. Back then, I reveled in its charms and never noticed its flaws. Set in a world of the past, in which girls wore pinafores and country doctors arrived in horse-drawn carts, it always seemed magical to me: those rolling Yorkshire fields, the prettily painted trains, the lilting accents of the actors, the Edwardian knickknacks and abundantly flowered wallpaper. Watching this movie was always the happiest of journeys and I would lose myself in it once a year, rereading the book at other times to bring back a bit of the joy.


All this is to say that I’m not sure I can accurately “review” a movie so tied up with my childhood, particularly at this time of year; I can only share what it makes me feel. I rewatched “The Railway Children” the other day, on a DVD purchased on a nostalgic whim years ago, and loved it yet again, even as viewing it in middle age brought strange nuance to the experience. Nothing about this movie surprised me — it seemed that I’d always, even as a child, known it by heart; perhaps it was engraved there — but that gentle familiarity was part of the joy.

Directed by Lionel Jeffries and adapted closely from Nesbit’s 1906 novel, “The Railway Children” is an episodic drama with a thread of loss running through it. Roberta, Phyllis and Peter live an idyllic life in London, until the snowy evening when men in suits arrive to take their father away. Their devastated but resourceful mother moves with the children to a far humbler house in rural Yorkshire, near a railway station, and the children find there a new kind of life — and, along the way, thoughtful Roberta (known as Bobbie) learns what has happened to her father. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything if I tell you that, yes, there is a happy ending.


Watching it now, I can see things I didn’t long ago: Jeffries’ direction is uneven and occasionally melodramatically silly; Sally Thomsett as Phyllis, though delightful, seems too old for her role (her figure’s all too obviously hidden beneath those enormous pinafores); the country doctor seems to have a weird attraction to Bobbie; Peter, rather distractingly, has a Beatles haircut and looks like a very small Ringo Starr. But none of this mattered a whit. I don’t mind telling you I started weeping over the opening credits — just hearing the wistful music, which I thought I’d forgotten long ago, swept me back. And the ending — oh, the ending, its emotions magnified at a time when so many of us are missing being near our parents — also did me in.

And along the way, I was charmed anew, particularly by the film’s central performance. Jenny Agutter, as Bobbie, is the film’s quiet heart; she enters a room decorated for her birthday and you can see her memorizing the moment, saving it in her life’s picture book. (Agutter, now 50 years older, can currently be seen as Sister Julienne in “Call the Midwife” on PBS; her voice still has that velvety conviction.) What happens in “The Railway Children” is that we watch Bobbie beginning to become an adult; she, unlike her siblings, must grapple with the grown-up reality of her father’s fate, and along with it, glimmerings of understanding her mother’s plight. She’s still a child, but we watch her becoming older, separating just a bit from her younger siblings, showing us the woman — smart and tough and loving, like her mother — she will become.

Maybe that’s why the films of our childhood hit us so hard later: we watch them uncomfortably aware that we’re seeing a piece of our younger selves, and that the sun is now illuminating the movie at a different angle; one closer to sunset, with longer shadows. My 10-year-old self loved this movie because there were children — funny, charmingly dressed children — at its center; my adult self now looks at the grown-ups on screen, wondering why I never thought about them. In “The Railway Children,” as in so many children’s books and films, problems are solved by the final page and final reel: At its end, we look back at that Yorkshire house where, as Bobbie tells us, nothing else is wanted anymore. That final scene made me enormously happy as a child, and it still does now. My heart has been through a lot since those Christmases, but it’s still recognizably that little girl’s, sitting on the window seat on a dark winter’s night, dreaming of snow and imagining sleigh bells.

For me, “The Railway Children” is magic; for you, maybe not. But I hope these words are helping you remember another movie, something that holds this kind of magic for you, and that maybe you’ll watch that movie over the holidays. In this time of isolation, I like to picture people all over the city, curled up in front of movies that make them feel like part of a warm community. May this season bring that warmth — and that magic — to all of us.  

Directed by Lionel Jeffries, 1970, 106 minutes, rated G. Currently streaming at The Criterion Channel; available on DVD at Reckless Video and Scarecrow Video (special deposit required at Scarecrow). Note that there are other movie versions of “The Railway Children,” filmed in 2002 and 2016, but I’m specifically recommending the 1970 one.