Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe
Starring Kelly McDonald, Rafe Spall, Andrew Scott, Harry Enfield
Released on 19th August 2016
With apologies to L P Hartley, 1935 is another country: they do things differently there. No mobile phones, laptops, Pokemon Go, TV or microwaves. Kids could run free for miles – although, admittedly, they probably only did that in the minds of children’s authors like Arthur Ransome, Enid Blyton and E Nesbit. But it really was a different world.
Ransome’s Swallows And Amazons is still regarded as a children’s classic, although it’s probably more familiar to children of the 50s and 60s than the 21st century. And this latest version (there was another one in 1974, as well as a couple of TV adaptations) probably isn’t exactly how Ransome intended it. Because, as well as the children’s adventure, there’s also an espionage storyline.
The main story is, as ever, about the four Walker children and their mother (Kelly McDonald), who arrive on a farm in the Lake District for their annual summer holiday. It’s a place the children love but they’ve always been fascinated by the island in the middle of the lake and eventually their mother agrees to them sailing over there on their own for a few days’ camping. They go in the farmer’s boat, called Swallow. But once there, they discover somebody else has adopted the island: they call themselves the Amazons, after their boat. And so a rivalry develops between the two to claim the island for their own.
But there’s that other storyline, one that’s been invented for the big screen. And it starts with a sinister Andrew Scott, complete with overcoat and trilby, on the same train to the Lake District as the children – as is Rafe Spall, who turns out to be Scott’s quarry. After a scene that could have come straight out of The 39 Steps, Spall manages to escape, but it turns out that he also lives on the very same lake, is related to one of the Amazons and is a secret agent. He’s a development of one of the characters in the book, but also a nod towards Ransome himself, who was involved in espionage.
So it’s all rather a case of Richard Hannay Meets The Railway Children or the Famous Five – or a bit of both. Apart from expanding the storyline in a way which, in all honesty, doesn’t sit wholly comfortably with an adventure that’s supposed to be about two groups of children, it’s a safe piece of film making. And its lack of CGI or any other technical wizardry is quite refreshing, helping it to stand apart from the other family offerings in cinemas this summer. Or, at least, it’s refreshing for the older members of the audience: I’m just not so sure about how the younger ones will react, although newcomers under the age of about eight or so should find it great fun.
For their parents – and grandparents, come to that – it’s pure nostalgia, a throwback to when the world was, supposedly, more innocent and a whole lot safer. It’s not exactly filmed in soft focus, but it’s implicit. And it’s all terribly respectable. Nobody uses anything approaching bad language and the behaviour of the four Walker children is pretty decent – and they’re far less protected than kids today. Nonetheless, the adults are still strict with them and farmer’s wife Mrs Jackson (Jessica Hynes) is almost permanently disapproving. She, and Harry Enfield as her husband, are some of the best things in it, with Enfield is re-creating Shakespeare’s Dad from Upstart Crow, but without the Brummie accent. He and Hynes actually address each other as “Mr Jackson” and “Mrs Jackson” – a long standing tradition in farming communities in the north, bizarre as it may sound today.
If you’re expecting something twee, then the good news is that the film manages just to stay on the right side of that, but there’s little of the childhood imagination magic that you’d expect. It only shows itself after all the action is over and everybody gets stuck into a massive game of pirates. Less of the espionage would have made room for more of this, as well as bringing it closer to the spirit of the original.
Nonetheless, it’s safe, sweet and soft centred. Like a bag of Werthers.
Swallows And Amazons is released in cinemas on Friday, 19 August and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 18 August.