Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: Philippa Lowthorpe
Stars: Kelly McDonald, Rafe Spall, Andrew Scott, Harry Enfield
Released 19th August 2016
Brace yourselves. We’re about to be engulfed in a huge wave of nostalgia. It started with ‘The BFG’, spilled over into ‘Pete’s Dragon’ and now there’s a tsunami on its way in the very English shape of ‘Swallows And Amazons’. But it’s not quite as Arthur Ransome intended.
Admittedly, the main story is pretty much untouched. It’s 1935 and four children, with their mother, are holidaying on a Lake District farm. The youngsters are fascinated by the island in the middle of a nearby lake and eventually are allowed to sail there for a few days’ camping on their own. So, off they go, in Swallow, the boat belonging to the farmer. But when they arrive, it’s obvious somebody else has adopted the place: more children, who call themselves the Amazons, after their boat. All of which starts a battle to claim the island once and for all.
But there’s more, and that’s where traditionalists may part company with the film. A second storyline has been created purely for this film version, one that starts with a sinister Andrew Scott on board the train carrying the children to the Lake District. As is Rafe Spall, Scott’s quarry, although he manages to escape in a scene that could have come straight out of ‘The 39 Steps’. He re-appears, in a houseboat on the very same lake, and it turns out that not only is a related to one of the Amazons, he’s also a spy. He’s actually a development of one of the characters in the original book, as well as a nod in the direction of Ransome himself, who was also involved in espionage.
So it’s all a bit ‘Richard Hannay Meets The Railway Children’ – or The Famous Five, come to that, because this time round the children have managed to nobble some villains. It’s very English, very mid-1930s and very much the idyllic vision of childhood at the time. Apart from that change in the storyline, which isn’t always the most comfortable of fits, it’s a safe piece of film making. Its lack of CGI, or any other technical wizardry, is refreshing, helping the film stand out from the other current family offerings.
For the adults that will, no doubt, end up dragging the youngsters along to cinemas, it’s pure nostalgia, a throwback to a safer, more innocent time where children could go off and play without a care in the world. It’s all terribly respectable as well: the children are really quite well behaved and there’s not even a whiff of bad language. Yet thankfully, it all manages to stay firmly on the right side of twee. What it lacks, though, is the magic that goes hand in hand with childhood imagination. There’s only a glimpse of it towards the end, when all the action is over, and everybody gets stuck into a game of pirates. Less of the espionage would have helped.
But, overall, it’s safe, sweet and soft centred. Pass the Werthers …….