Streaming Spotlight: trains on film

It's full steam ahead with this selection of classics and action spectaculars

by Jennie Kermode

Closely Observed Trains
Closely Observed Trains

Last week saw the death of Czech New Wave director Jiri Menzel, whose beautifully observed romance Closely Observed Trains is sadly not available to stream in the UK at the moment. We’re looking at some other films about life on the railways that remind us how much trains have contributed to cinema.

The General
The General

The General, BFI Player, Amazon Prime

Chases and fights on the tops of trains have long been a staple of action cinema, starting with The Great Train Robbery in 1903 and taking in the likes on Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 and James Bond thriller Skyfall, but those made after 1926 all owe something to the directing skills, stunt coordination and sheer courage of Buster Keaton. Here he plays a railway engineer whose beloved engine is stolen by enemy spies during the US Civil War – with the woman he loves on board – and who will stop at nothing to get it back. Everything you see here is for real, with no help from special effects teams. Co-star Marion Mack is a real trooper, acting without always knowing what was about to happen to her, and even after 93 years it will still have you on the edge of your seat.

The Station Agent
The Station Agent

The Station Agent, Amazon Prime, BFI Player

The film that first brought Peter Dinklage to critical attention, winning widespread praise but sadly not getting as much publicity as it deserved upon release, this gently paced, sharp witted drama sees him play a train enthusiast who moves into an old station house beside a disused line and watches old films about trains in his spare time. It follows his developing relationships with his new neighbours (there’s fine support from Patricia Clarkson among others), his response to prejudice encountered at the local watering hole and his general adjustment to life in one of those numerous small US towns that only came into being because of the railways and was left to its fate when they drifted out of use. The characters are beautifully drawn in a tender but often very funny meditation on the difference between solitude and loneliness.

Source Code
Source Code

Source Code, Amazon Prime

Duncan Jones’ follow up to his hit début [15609]Moon[/film], this film was burdened with a heavy weight of expectation, and its lasting popularity speaks to the intelligence and skill that went into its construction. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a former military man tasked with living through the same eight minutes again and again as he tries and repeatedly fails – to save a train full of passengers from a terrorist bomb. Those who have little patience for time loops will be pleasantly surprised not only by the inventiveness with which Jones handles this narrative but also by the plot concealed behind it, which is cleverer than you might expect. While there are brief homages to Speed, this is a film packed full of original action ideas and it really makes use of its environment, no part of which can be free from suspicion.

The Railway Children
The Railway Children

The Railway Children, BFI Player, Amazon Prime, Google Play

One of the most enduringly popular children’s films of all time, Lionel Jeffries’ whimsical English classic reflects on an age of innocence before the coming of the World Wars, and though its has its roots in the popular spy novels of the time – with its young protagonists left to their own devices in the countryside after their father is arrested – its focus is on the sort of courage that would become much more widely understood when those conflicts arrived and children were uprooted in greater number. Star Jenny Agutter told us 40 years later that she still hadn’t stopped receiving fan letters about it, but there are no weak links in the young cast and for all that their adventures might seem simple, their lives sheltered, their emotional responses feel utterly real, making them easy for children to relate to today.

Unstoppable
Unstoppable

Unstoppable, Amazon Prime

Trying to stop the train in The Railway Children may have been a close call, but what if it can’t be stopped at all? Tony Scott’s final film as a director takes this admittedly silly premise and goes completely off the rails. Denzel Washington and Chris Pine battle their way through one patently unfair crisis after another, and although it takes a while to get going, once the engine is fired up the action doesn’t stop. You’ll have to be prepared to suspend disbelief a bit – as in Snowpiercer, neither the body of the train itself nor the shape of the track quite conform to physics as we know it – but Scott was never one to worry about these things and the actors are more than capable of convincing us that they believe it. With dangerous chemicals on board (it’s never really clear why) and a town in peril, the runaway train has to be brought under control.

Murder On The Orient Express
Murder On The Orient Express

Murder On The Orient Express, Amazon Prime, NowTV

Remember the days when it only took one death to rouse concern? Kenneth Branagh does a good job of transporting us back to that era in his 2017 take on the Agatha Christie classic, with an all star cast that includes Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz and Willem Dafoe. His own performance in the plum role of Poirot is the standout, combining an almost obsessive professional attention to detail with the warmth and humour that endeared Peter Ustinov’s version to so many. The interior landscapes of the train are beautifully filmed in a style that will keep the uninitiated dazzled by potential clues, and their actors enjoy getting their teeth into meaty roles which make it hard to know who to trust and harder to know who to like – yet which entertain nonetheless.

Train To Busan
Train To Busan

Train To Busan, iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime

Think some of those train rides sound scary? Yeon Sang-ho takes it one step further in this action-packed spectacular which sees a troubled father and his young daughter trapped aboard the Seoul to Busan express as its other passengers begin to turn into ravenous, bloodthirsty zombies. A lot of invention is needed – and delivered – to keep on surprising the viewer in this tightly restricted environment as authorities outside the train try to work out what to do about it – and about the rapidly rapidly spreading epidemic elsewhere. Great chemistry between the actors makes them easy to root for, with little Kim Su-an’s perfect comic timing an additional treat, and the special effects are spectacular. Going way beyond simply blood and gore, this is a film that sustains the pace and stays on track all the way to a destination that’s not quite what anyone expected.

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