A reassuringly old-fashioned adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s classic pre-war tale of childhood adventure - with an added dash of derring-do!
Arthur Ransome’s classic pre-war tale of childhood adventure Swallows and Amazons still evokes a golden, prelapsarian age when kids were free range and mucking about in boats was the acme of excitement.
Happily, helicopter parents are nowhere to be seen in this reassuringly old-fashioned screen adaptation. Director Philippa Lowthorpe and screenwriter Andrea Gibb have tweaked one or two details of Ransome’s original. And they’ve added an extra dash of derring-do. But at heart their film is as cosily nostalgic as the cherished 1974 version, which starred Virginia McKenna, Ronald Fraser and a very young Susannah ‘Zanna’ Hamilton.
The setting is, of course, the Lake District, the year slightly advanced from the book’s 1930 publication to 1935. The four Walker children - John (Dane Hughes), Susan (Orla Hill), Tatty (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen playing the renamed Titty) and Roger (Bobby McCulloch) - are on holiday there with their mother (Kelly Macdonald) and baby sibling, and eager to be allowed to sail on the nearby lake in a dinghy named Swallow.
"Better Drowned Than Duffers"
Their absent naval officer father gives his permission with that gloriously cryptic, instantly decoded telegram:
BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN.
The Walker children are by no means duffers and nor are the Blackett sisters (Seren Hawkes, Hannah-Jayne Thorp), who sail the dinghy Amazon. Both claiming the island in the lake as their own, the two sets of children become rivals and then allies in the adventures that follow.
"The power of children’s imagination"
Which is where the film diverges from the book. Ransome’s novel doesn’t just champion the virtues of outdoor play but also celebrates the power of children’s imagination. On the page this is more than enough to enthral us. When it comes to the screen, however, Lowthorpe and Gibb clearly feel that their film needs a bigger threat than the imaginary ‘pirates’ and ‘savages’ the children conjure up out of the innocuous locals.
They therefore give us a spy intrigue as a sub-plot (taking inspiration from Ransome’s own espionage career in Soviet Russia). This sees the book’s houseboat-dwelling Uncle Jim (Rafe Spall) transformed into a dashing Buchanesque agent who is on the run from a pair of dastardly, hat and trench-coat wearing Russians (Sherlock’s Andrew Scott and Dan Skinner).
Inevitably, the children get involved in his plight. Their ensuing escapades are heartily enjoyable, the mild thrills and spills expertly pitched for a family audience.
Certificate PG. Runtime 97 mins. Director Philippa Lowthorpe
Swallows and Amazons is released on Friday 19 August.
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A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.