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Film review: Swallows and Amazons is an old-fashioned adventure for children

It is a bygone-era tale of children messing about in boats in England at a time when parents could let their kids go off on camping adventures for days on end without fear. 
Swallows and Amazons is based on a book of the same name by British writer Arthur Ransome. Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment
Swallows and Amazons is based on a book of the same name by British writer Arthur Ransome. Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment

Swallows and Amazons

Director: Philippa Lowthorpe

Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Andrew Scott, Rafe Spall, Dane Hughes, Orla Hill

Three stars

Author Arthur Ransome’s classic 1930 children’s adventure yarn – which has already spawned successful film, radio, stage and television adaptations – gets another outing on the big screen.

Thankfully, this latest version does not try to drag the quaint action into the 21st century. It is still a story as gentle as a lakeside breeze – a bygone-era tale of children messing about in boats in England at a time when parents could let their kids go off on camping adventures for days on end without fear.

Set during the summer of 1935, strict-but-fair matriarch Mrs Walker (Boardwalk Empire and Trainspotting star Kelly Macdonald) takes her five children for a holiday in the Lake District while her husband is working in Hong Kong. They stay at a farm run by two well-meaning locals (Jessica Hynes, Harry Enfield), and are given permission to use a sailboat – The Swallow.

Taking charge is the eldest boy, John (Dane Hughes) – who dubs himself “Captain Walker” – as all but the youngest of the Walker clan clamber aboard: Susan (Orla Hill), Tatty (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen) and Roger (Bobby McCulloch), who is frequently called a “duffer” by his older brother for his slightly inept manner.

When they discover a land mass in the middle of the lake, they christen it Walker Island – only to ignite a rivalry with two wannabe prepubescent pirates, Nancy and Peggy Blackett (Seren Hawkes, Hannah Jayne Thorp), who have already claimed it for themselves.

Scripted by Andrea Gibb (Dear Frankie), the story certainly captures the soft rhythms of Ransome’s prose, in which losing a picnic basket in the water ranks as high drama.

In fact, Gibb feels the need to spice up the narrative a little, evolving the character of Jim Turner (Rafe Spall, on great miserly form). Uncle to the Blacketts – and said to be based on Ransome himself – in the book, this grumpy fellow whom the kids nickname Captain Flint does nothing more exciting than write his memoirs. Gibb takes some artistic licence by shoehorning in an espionage plot – not as far-fetched as it sounds, given that Ransome is now known to have been an MI6 spy.

Here, Turner is a travel writer – or at least that is his cover, as he is seen to be doing battle with two mysterious men (including Sherlock and Spectre star Andrew Scott). For a while at least, director Philippa Lowthorpe keeps an aura of mystery around these characters – we are not quite sure who the villain of the piece is – as their plot becomes entwined with the children’s.

In these days of special effects- driven blockbusters and graphic R-rated video games, Swallows and Amazons cannot really compete – and it does not want to.

While it does deliver an action sequence in the finale, featuring boats and a seaplane, kids today are likely to find it all rather tame, compared with the crash-bang antics of Hollywood movies.

But minus the noise and chaos that such films bring, this is the sort of nostalgic, dreamlike family film parents and grandparents will find – perhaps more so than their offspring – perfectly pleasant viewing.

Swallows and Amazons is in cinemas now

artslife@thenational.ae

Published: January 25, 2017 04:00 AM

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