Arthur Ransome’s beloved 1930’s adventure Swallows and Amazons is an undoubtable memory harboured from those school days where an adventure of this kind was every child’s dream; a swashbuckling tale on the seas full of excitement and, of course, pirates. Adaptations in the last eighty years have come and gone and this, directed by British television favourite Philippa Lowthorpe, is merely the latest big screen outing.
Four children (the Swallows) on holiday in the Lake District set sail, unaccompanied, to a distant island and set up camp. Thinking they’ve claimed the island, a rival gang, the Amazons, begin a war to claim all. Amongst said war, the Swallows come across a mysterious man (Rafe Spall) living on a houseboat and find themselves part of a real adventure.
Kelly Macdonald, Sherlock’s Andrew Scott and Rafe Spall are merely a handful of the fine British talent Swallows and Amazon has to offer. From its glorified panoramic countryside shots to an understandable adoration for tea and cake, this is quintessentially British. A wholesome, captivating family adventure at its core, it’s written with a pure intent on maintaining an ethic that sustains these family ideals. This is as safe as film can imaginably be or ever become, but does this hold the final product back?
The film undoubtedly flourishes with these child actors. Dane Hughes specifically, playing eldest John Walker, the Chief of the Swallows whose inhibitions run amok on the sea, but amongst his fellow youths there’s a charming and instant sense of captivating camaraderie that only strengthens. But amongst this camaraderie, again, it desperately grasps onto the morals of family, and thus tension or any sort of danger that could ensue from crossing paths with Spall’s enigmatic Captain Flint is sorely absent.
Not everything desires a darker side to fulfil a film that feels more complete, but in this sense, when there’s talks of thievery and pirates and Russian spies, it’s alarmingly more and more safe when these things lead to absolutely nothing other than a quirky game of youths clambering onto their own personal playground.
Spall’s arc as a character proves lacklustre compared to the vigorous young actors that fill the screen with complete glee, for most of the film he plays as the biggest grump going.
Understandably so, Swallows and Amazons maintains the soul of Ransome’s original. But in remaining as safe as it is, it really does feel as though it’s catered for an audience based on the era in which the film is set. It looks wonderful and its young cast are wholly suited to their characters, but where a sense of danger of even the slightest amount could have livened the film, specifically the last half, it instead remains as old-fashioned as the book from which it spawned.
Dir: Philippa Lowthorpe
Scr: Andrea Gibb
Cast: Rafe Spall, Kelly Macdonald, Andrew Scott
Prd: Nick Barton, Nick O’Hagan, Joe Oppenheimer
Music: Ilan Ishkeri
DOP: Julian Court
Runtime: 97 minutes
Swallows & Amazons is out on Blu-Ray and DVD 12th December.