For today’s children, this fresh adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s classic Lake District tale must seem as if it’s taking place on some distant planet.
The brothers and sisters here are allowed to take their dinghy to the waters by themselves and even stay overnight on the island at its middle. They gut fish for dinner, navigate their way round the shores, and even find themselves in a territorial dispute with some cunning local rivals. Not a smartphone or tablet in sight, no social media updates, and no sign of an app to light a campfire when the matches have gone astray.
The year is 1935, so best not to expect such modern tech anyway, but what’s fascinating about this slight rejig of Ransome’s much-loved 1930 novel, is that whatever liberties it takes with the plot – the dastardly Russian spies are a new addition! – it preserves the values of an era when young people were expected to learn by doing, and left to get on with it themselves.
So, when the Walker family head to their usual holidaying spot, their mum (Kelly Macdonald, caring but understated) seeks advice from her navy commander husband, currently en route to Hong Kong, before letting the four children set sail on their own. “Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers won’t drown” comes the telegram in reply, giving the two brothers and two sisters licence to take the Swallow out on the lake, providing they make a proper job of it.
As it turns out, raising their flag on the island only sets off a tussle with the tomboy Blackett sisters, who dub themselves the Amazons and don’t take kindly to these interlopers, and whose family connections with Rafe Spall’s mysterious houseboat-dwelling travel writer will land all concerned in international intrigue and genuine jeopardy.
Aside from renaming the younger Walker girl Tatty (originally Titty, would you believe?), the main change here, an espionage angle introducing firearms, could seem like a sop to the expectation of modern audiences. It is, though, also an appropriate nod to Ransome’s own secret-service activities, while a nifty opening sequence on a train throws up welcome celluloid associations with Hitchcock’s 1935 version of The 39 Steps.
The added action does also give the film a bit more vim and vigour than the overly genteel 1974 screen Swallows and Amazons, long a stalwart of holiday TV schedules. With more at stake, the drama is intensified, as director Philippa Lowthorpe (whose own small-screen pedigree includes Jamaica Inn and Call the Midwife) gives everything hands-on credibility while still retaining the nostalgic appeal of bygone days.
Lowthorpe also works brilliantly with the junior cast, where Dane Hughes’s oldest boy conveys the weight of responsibility, Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen is a smart and sparky Tatty, and Bobby McCulloch’s Roger gets the biggest laughs as the adorably bumbling junior crew member Roger.
All in all, it’s an intelligent, involving, beautifully mounted adaptation of material that might easily have seemed an old-fashioned relic. And the grey, blustery Lake District weather could hardly be more British.
Swallows and Amazons is in cinemas from Friday 19th August