Director: Phillipa Lowthorpe
Writer: Andrea Gibb
Based on: Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome.
Starring: Rafe Spall, Andrew Scott, Kelly Macdonald, Harry Enfield, Jessica Hynes, Dane Hughes, Orla Hill, Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen and Bobby Mcculloch.
It would appear, if recent cinematic adaptations are to be taken as evidence, that children have become rather bored with this planet of ours.While films such as The BFG , Pete’s Dragon and Finding Dory take place on Earth,they all require the fantastical in order to captivate their audience. Swallows and Amazons is a welcome break from cinema’s dogmatic reliance on magic, reminding the viewer that children will find mystery and adventure in any location-even if it isn’t really there.
The film opens as Roger Walker and his siblings (John, Tatty and Susan) leave for a surprise trip to the Lake District. Their journey is interrupted by a rather sinister war-hero Jim Turner (or Captain Flint,as he is soon nicknamed by the children) who is on the run from seedy “Secret Agent” Lazlow, portrayed with gleeful enthusiasm by Andrew Scott.
Upon arrival the children are banned from sailing alone and find themselves doomed to the monotony of a holiday under the watchful eye of Mr and Mrs Jackson, a gloomy and bickering pair played brilliantly by Harry Enfield and Jessica Hynes. The children have other ideas though, and are soon sailing the seas of the Lake District aboard their vessel “Swallow”.
Cinematography is used brilliantly in these sequences, often depicting the lake as a vast waterway that swallows (no pun intended) our intrepid explorers as they navigate towards the island’s centre. What makes the cinematography so memorable in these sequences is not only that it captures the beauty of the local scenery, but that it becomes a metaphor for the ways in which the world changes under the gaze of a child. When viewed from the inventive view of a youngster, the lake is transformed from a simple but nonetheless stunning body of water into a gateway of mystery and excitement. The children soon make their way to the island, albeit with a few mishaps, and must work together in order to light fires, catch food, and most importantly protect the land from the clutches of the “Amazons”.
The “Amazons” are the most feared pirates in all the land. Of course, in reality, they are siblings whose only real rivals, aside from “The Swallows” are each other. The “Amazons” were first to settle on the island and, believing that it is rightly theirs, it is not long before both groups are forced to battle for ownership. The fight for the island culminates in a wonderful sequence involving a race to capture the opposing team’s boat, a stark reminder of the seriousness that children can invest in their diversions. As the children battle for the island, Agent Lazlow and Jim are engaged in their own conflict
The narrative between these two reveals the melancholic heart that beats at the centre of the drama, but director Phillipa Lawthorpe never allows the adventures of the Walkers to be stalled by the repercussions of the first world war, or the foreboding presence of future battles. Instead of explictely referencing the war, or worse still showing the struggles faced by the adult characters during this period,the conflict remains exclusively metaphorical. It mainly exists in the light-hearted relationship which exists between the playful games of the children, and the sinister link which connects Jim and the agents pursuing him. This metaphor is reinforced in an amusing sequence in which one of the agents does his upmost to evade being discovered in a shop, an attempt that is strikingly similar to a game of hide and seek.
The children’s imagination of warfare is also crucial to this dynamic. In a short, but poignant exchange early in the film, Roger suggests that his absent father is away on a “ship” only to be corrected that it is in fact a “destroyer” . The distinction is lost on the young boy, but as an audience we understand the difference between the child’s imaginative image of a “pirate ship”, and the devastation caused by a machine built to kill. There is also a clear link between the children’s battle for the island and the battles being fought by countries over larger pieces of territory. The war is not forgotten in this film, but its brutality lies in the background, never threatening to destroy the charming story unfolding on screen.
“Swallows and Amazons” is a delightful and endearing piece of work. It is old-fashioned in its depiction of the world and some parents may be shocked at some of the activities the children take part in. Still there is no doubt that youngsters will revel in the rebellious attitude of its central protagonists, while parents will certainly be charmed by its depiction of childhood innocence.