My 7yo and I were lucky enough to see the world premiere of this week’s family film release Swallow and Amazons in Keswick (out of Friday 19th August). We’ve fallen head over heels in love with the world of the Walker children, created by Arthur Ransome in his books, would the film live up to our expectations?
Abso-blooming-lutely! We totally loved it. This is exactly the kind of film to completely ignite your child’s imagination for some outdoor adventure games over the summer holidays.
I didn’t want to start with this, because I am going to judge the film on it’s own merits, but I think as most of my audience is female, it’s worth noting that the film has a very talented female director and a female scriptwriter, and that as film is hugely male dominated this is a yet another reason to support this release, I will give your plenty more reasons…
The book is long and a deliciously slow burner, about the four Walker children who, in the 1930s plan to sail their boat Swallow, without grown ups, to Wild Cat island, a small uninhabited island in the midst of Coniston Water in the English Lake District. The ‘Swallows’ soon realise the island is already inhabited, by the rough, tough girl pirates, the Blackett Sisters aka The Amazons.
It’s the kind of adventure that modern children dream of having, and their adults wish they could give them. Mr G and I were lucky to follow in the footsteps of some of those adventures while up in the Lakes, so do go check out our post How to Have An Epic Swallows And Amazons themed Lake District Adventure.
Modern film is such a different medium to books set in the 1930s, modern audiences have been taught to expect dramatic openings and epic endings, so scriptwriter Andrea Gibb and director Philippa Lowthorpe play a very clever game of ‘what if’ with elements of the plot and secondary characters. We thought the addition of spies, a near death moment and an epic climax were justified, and totally plausible in the world of Ransome who was himself monitored by MI5 who suspected him of being a Russian spy.
I wonder if critics who debated whether the added high drama was necessary, perhaps needed to watch it with a child – my 7yo, who has devoured four of the audio books, while doing other things, like travelling or playing lego, loved the film as much as the books, but I don’t think he would have sat and watched a more ‘faithful’ film adaptation of the book.
The film holds so many truths of the book that we were laughing and smiling together throughout watching it come alive, although I promise you really don’t need to have read the book to appreciate the film it’s touchingly funny throughout. Swallows and Amazons brings something deliciously different to a children’s film market dominated by animated films that leave me a little cold, it’s refreshing to see family relationships so beautifully observed on screen, in a way that completely resonates with both adults and children.
The script is wonderfully witty, and combined with subtle moments of visual comedy it makes for a really heartwarming, fun adventure. Comedy stars like Harry Enfield and Jessica Hynes (Spaced) and the intertextuality of Andrew Scott as a spy (Moriarty in Sherlock) make this a film that really resonates with adults too. Rafe Spall plays Mr Flint, the spy who’s fortunes the children become mixed up in.
The characterisation is brilliant, the cast are so full of warmth and humour and within the late 1920s setting is a hearty dash of modern values too which make the characters even more relatable to today’s kids.
We adored the characterisation of Roger, the youngest adventurer, he was so spot on with my 7yo that it almost could have been him. It’s the little unspoken details of characterisation I love, watching him play with boats in the bath as the film opens, standing on the train seat to fiddle with a light fitting and running to hide in the chicken shed when he is told he can’t swim and so will have to stay at home while the others sail to the island.
All the young cast are absolutely brilliant and so at home in their roles, Susan (Orla Hill), Roger (Bobby McCulloch), John (Dane Hughes) and Tatty (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen) having thoroughly immersed themselves in the Lakes and in learning to sail. In the premiere speeches we were told acting on film is a fairly new world to them all, you would never have guessed. The director auditioned thousands of children to find them, the casting is absolutely perfect.
The Walker children have a very believable family rapport, and their relationship with their mother was a particular joy to watch for me. Kelly McDonald holds all the characters and family together so beautifully as Mrs Walker. The representation of motherhood was really poignant, Mr Walker is working away and it was moving to see such strong mother figure raising such incredible young people and championing them with love and humour through everything.
I loved the feisty Amazon twins Nancy (Seren Hawkes) and Peggy (Hannah Jayne Thorp), they bring a much needed modern contrast to the more traditionally gendered roles the Walker children adapt, where John sails and Susan cooks. The actresses broader accents and corkscrew curls combined with a daring glint in their eyes and strong physicality – they double handedly carry the book smoothly into the realms of modern day possibility too. Although set in the 1920s it is also easy to imagine this adventure taking place now too.
Another star of the show is the Lake District – I am a little tired of films about England including London, red phone boxes and mini cars – undoubtably film is brilliant for tourism and we have so much more to offer than just London! The Lakes are spectacular.
Swallows and Amazons is released on Friday August 19th, rated PG. Photos – StudioCanal films.