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Based on a popular children novel by Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons is the kind of old-fashioned, British family movies that is rarely seen these days in the landscape of animated movies, big budget blockbusters and family comedies.
It’s 1935 and the Walker family heads up north to the Lake District for their summer vacation. The children, John (Dane Hughes), Susan (Orla Hill), Tatty (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen) and Roger (Bobby McCulloch) convince their struggling mother (Kelly Macdonald) to let them camp on a small island in the middle of the deepest lake in England. Their adventure sees the children test out their survival skills, form a rivalry with two local girls (Seren Hawkes and Hannah Jayne Thorp) and get embroiled with a scheme involving some dastardly adults.
Swallows and Amazons has been adapted two times before – once as a TV series in 1963 and a movie in 1974. The new version has a certain charm to it. The movie is a deliberately quaint in its approach – a story that looks at normal children living in a rural area set in a historic period, much like the beloved classic The Railway Children. However, this quaint approach is also Swallows and Amazons’ biggest problem because the stakes are small scale. If the children fail the worst thing that would happen is they have to go home. The movie was produced by the BBC and directed by Philippa Lowthrope, a director who worked on Call the Midwife and the TV movie Cider with Rosie, safe viewing for middle-class, middle-England audiences.
Swallows and Amazons properly started out as a TV production and somehow got turned into a feature film – it has the air of a Christmas special, something that families could gather around the TV to watch on a cold winter’s evening. There are some landscape and aerial shots of the Lake District and the picturesque village, but in an age where RED and Black Magic cameras are readily available, it makes these type of shots a lot easier to achieve for most productions. The most cinematic aspect of the movie was the score by Ilan Eshkeri, a regular collaborator with Matthew Vaughn. Eshkeri’s score swells and soars as the children live their pirate fantasies as they sail on the lake or battle with the rival girls: hitting the right notes.
The movie is at its best when it focuses on the children. Actors like Rafe Spall and Andrew Scott have prominent roles, but the four siblings are front and center as they face the struggles of sailing to the island, fishing for food, learning how to make fire and outwitting their rivals. It was made out as a huge triumph when they succeed in a task. The dynamic between the Walker siblings is like the Pevensies in the Chronicle of Narnia series – John Walker and Peter Pevensie are the oldest and have to take up the mantle of manhood – replacing their fathers who are serving in the military – while the Susans are the voice of reason in their parties. The four children have a great relationship with each other: John protects Tatty and Susan mothers her younger brother.
Three of the four siblings have distinct personalities – John is trying to follow in his father’s footsteps, showing he is a leader and his skills as a sailor – while Roger sets out to prove he can keep up with his siblings. One of Roger’s big moments is proving he is a strong enough swimmer to go sailing and camping on the island. Tatty (Titty in the novel) is the creative one out of the group, writing and drawing in her journal, creating the pirate story of the children’s adventure. Malleson-Allen’s performance was similar to Ramona Marquez in the excellent British sitcom Outnumbered – playing a smart child who is able to quiz the adults and has strong comedic timing. Sadly Susan was written to be a bland, unmemorable character.
Swallows and Amazons also has a subplot where Rafe Spall plays a gruff lonely who had been spying on the Russians and the Russians had sent their agents, led by Andrew Scott who is fantastic at playing villains, to find him. This is the part of the movie where there is some urgency and shows that there is a larger world beyond their childish fantasies. When the children do become aware of what’s happening and need to put their solutions in play – it sparks of something that would happen in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series.
It is refreshing to see a family movie taking a more grounded approach, but its lack of peril makes Swallows and Amazons too light and modern audiences are likely to find the movie dull. There are strong performances from its young cast and some nice scenery, but that is not enough to raise Swallows and Amazons above a TV movie that got onto the big screen.