Swallows and Amazons

 

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Not so much a version of Arthur Ransome's work as a variation on it, this new adaptation deserves to become a children's classic in its own right.

 

Swallows and Amazons

An awfully big adventure: Dane Hughes, Teddie Malleson-Allen, Bobby McCulloch and Orla Hill

 

In 1974 Claude Whatham made an admirable film version of Swallows and Amazons which captured the unusual nature of Arthur Ransome's classic tale published in 1930. In telling of the adventures of children on holiday in the Lake District, his book with its emphasis on boats and exploring dealt only with the kind of experiences which in such a context could be thought of as part of everyday life. But, because the children were young and imaginative, they were indulging in games in which rival children and mysterious adults encountered could be regarded as pirates. Consequently, the reality of Ransome's world extended to what children invent in their playful imaginings. Treasure Island might introduce its readers to real pirate types, but Ransome's works dealt instead with what was inside children's heads and shared that with young readers and with adults who could recognise the fantasy adventures that they had themselves conjured up when children.

 

This new film is of a different kind. The year in which it is set is 1935, and it is surely not by chance that the year chosen was that in which Alfred Hitchcock filmed John Buchan's The 39 Steps. Early scenes here echo that film when the train taking the children and their mother to the Lake District is revealed to have on board two Russian agents targeting a travel writer thought to have spied on shipyards while in their country. This is outside action and not something created in the children's imagination. Therefore this new film is, strictly speaking, a betrayal of Ransome, despite retaining all the original elements about the boating adventures of the four Walker children, the Swallows as per the name of their boat, and of their rivals and eventual friends the Beckett girls, the Amazons.

 

But it is all beautifully done on its own terms and these are perhaps more suited to present-day tastes. The older children may be a bit old for their roles (it's the two youngest Bobby McCulloch and Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen who make the strongest impression) but we readily enter into this world as scripted by screenwriter Andrea Gibb. Under director Philippa Lowthorpe making her feature debut all flows along without any apparent effort, the music score by Ilan Eshkeri could not be better and the 'Scope and  colour photography of Julian Court makes good use of the setting. Furthermore Andrew Scott and Dan Skinner as the Russians follow the splendid example of Rafe Spall as their target in not playing their material too heavily (Spall's tone adds to the effective sense of period). Any misgivings about the changes soon fade away and ultimately Philippa Lowthorpe's film looks set to become a classic to be set alongside 1970's beloved adaptation of The Railway Children.  

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Rafe Spall, Andrew Scott, Kelly Macdonald, Jessica Hynes, Harry Enfield, Dan Skinner, Dane Hughes, Orla Hill, Teddie Malleson-Allen, Bobby McCulloch, Seren Hawkes, Hannah-Jayne Thorp, Dan Skinner, Fenella Woolgar, Elizabeth Berrington, John Henshaw.


Dir Philippa Lowthorpe, Pro Nicholas Barton, Nick O'Hagan and Joe Oppenheimer, Screenplay Andrea Gibb, from the book by Arthur Ransome, Ph Julian Court, Pro Des Suzie Davies, Ed David Thrasher, Music Ilan Eshkeri, Costumes Amy Roberts.


BBC Films/BFI/Hanway Films/a Harbour Pictures production etc.-StudioCanal Limited.
98 mins. UK/France. 2016. Rel: 19 August 2016. Cert. PG
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