1935. On holiday in the Lake district, the Walker children — John, Susan, Tatty, Roger — set sail in The Swallow to conquer a small island. Yet they face hostilities from rival gang The Amazons, plus an even bigger threat in the form of Russian secret agents.
Arthur Ransome’s 1930 novel Swallows And Amazons is a beautiful hymn to childhood innocence, an ode to school holidays, playing pirates on sailing boats, pen knives, grazed knees and a curfew of tea-time. It’s high on charm and atmosphere, low on big narrative incident which have made subsequent big screen adaptations problematic. This second cinematic adaptation is a likable faithful-in-spirit rendition, but, like its 1974 antecedent, it never really manages to solve the lack of drama needed to thrive as a movie.
Director Philippa Lowthorpe’s film posits the quaint junior Bear Grylls antics (sailing mishaps, the struggles to make fire) as a riposte to mollycoddling kids, a call to arms to enjoy the world outside. Yet it never really etches the inner life of the kids to make the old-school antics feel true.
It never really manages to solve the lack of drama needed to thrive as a movie.
In attempt to supercharge the narrative stakes, Andrea Gibbs’ screenplay imports some incidents ripped from Ransome’s own life. Ransome was an MI6 spy during 1910s, so we get a subplot that see the kids get embroiled with Russian secret agents (led by Andrew Scott) on the trail of shady travel writer Jim Turner (Rafe Spall). Cue a train-top chase, lots of staring-through-binoculars surveillance, unsurprising twists and a last reel seaplane setpiece. Juxtaposing imagined childish danger with real-world threat is a potentially fruitful idea, but its broad Scooby-Doo quality fails to up the ante.
Lowthorpe comes from a quality TV background (Call The Midwife, Cider With Rosie) and there is an assured cosy feel to the storytelling. The Lake District looks lovely, Ilan Eshkeri’s score is big and effective, and the likes of Spall, Scott, Kelly Macdonald and Jessica Hynes offer solid support. But it still feels old-fashioned rather than timeless and even on its family entertainment terms, it just doesn’t quicken the pulse-rate.
No amount of espionage exploits can supercharge the japes and scrapes with excitement that warrant its place on the big screen.