Certificate PG, 97 minutes
Director: Philippa Lowthorpe
Stars: Kelly Macdonald, Andrew Scott, Rafe Spall
Swallows and Amazons is based on the classic children's book of the same name by Arthur Ransome, the first in a series which goes by the same name. It starts in Portsmouth in 1935 during the summer holidays. The Walker family is heading off to the Lake District in the north of England for the summer holidays. Going up on the train are Mrs. Walker (Kelly Macdonald), eldest son John (Dane Hughes), eldest daughter Susan (Orla Hill), middle daughter Tatty (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen), youngest son Roger (Bobby McCulloch) and the baby. Their father, the captain of a Royal Navy destroyer, is not with them, as he is currently stationed at Hong Kong.
On the train, a strange man, Jim Walker (Rafe Spall, The World's End), ducks into the Walkers' compartment whilst their mother is in the passageway having a cigarette. He's avoiding two men who are looking for him, and makes out that he's the children's father, until climbing outside the compartment after they leave, then jumping from the train as they realise that he's the man they are looking for, and draw a gun on him.
They are not the only people who claim the island; it is also claimed by the Amazons, a pair of pirates, sisters Nancy (Seren Hawkes) - originally called Ruth, but pirates are ruthless - and Peggy Blackett (Hannah Jayne Thorp), who sail the dinghy the Amazon and live near to the lake. The Swallows and Amazons declare war on each other, and battle to see who will control the island. All rather innocent children's stuff, but there is something darker going on as well.
The rather unpleasant Jim Walker (who takes a bit of a dislike to John), the Blackett's Uncle Jim, and called Captain Flint, after the pirate created by Robert Louis Stevenson and seen in the classic Treasure Island, by the pirate-obsessed Tatty, claims to be a travel writer who spends a lot of time abroad, but he's something more. The two men on the train, Lazlow (Andrew Scott, Spectre, Victor Frankenstein) and his unnamed companion are after Uncle Jim for some information he took, and they are planning to find out what Turner knows and capture him. With Europe closing on the brink of war, even the children will become involved, as they could be all that stands between Captain Flint and capture. Along the way, the Swallows make new friends and become closer as a family.
The lake in the story is a fictionalised version of Lake Windermere, the largest of the lakes in the Lake District, but elements have been taken from other places around the area, primarily Coniston Water whose surrounding countryside resembles that surrounding this lake. Arthur Ransome said that all the parts of the lake in the novel could be found in the area, but lifted and combined to make this fictional version.
There are differences between the original novel and the film, naturally enough. In the book, the children were already at the lake waiting for a telegram from their father, and were coming to the end of the summer holidays; however, the train journey introduces Captain Flint in a way that is important to the plot. Being set in 1935, it is also set later, and far closer to World War II, than the original novel's date of 1929. Tatty Walker has been renamed - in the books she was named Titty, and it's easy to guess why that name was changed. Susan was also rather more competent at cooking in the books than she appears to be in this.
The main story between the Swallows and the Amazons is essentially true to the books, the meeting between them and the battle for control of the island and. The addition of the plot involving secret agents is not, although parts of it are an adaptation of what actually happened in the book, as in that Jim Turner was writing a book, not doing anything more circumspect. Some of the events involving the agents did take place, but they had a simpler explanation (for a version without the addition of spies, see the 1974 adaptation of the novel).
How well children of today, the main target audience of the film, will relate to the world of the Swallows and Amazons is a good question, as that world is so different to that of today's children that it is practically alien in nature. Even over the past few decades what was once vaguely recognisable has turned into something completely different. The world of the Swallows and the Amazons has no mobile phones, no internet, no television and no electronic gaming - there's a scene where Nancy, Peggy and their mother play dominoes for entertainment. Playing outdoors may still be similar, but actually being allowed to sail a dinghy across a rather deep lake and camp overnight on an island by themselves is not the most likely thing for children not yet in their early teens to do. Or be allowed to do. This discrepancy between that time and this may well be the reason for the addition of the rather more action-oriented sub-plot involving spies; the original camping and fake war plot may be a bit tame today. However, the entire series of twelve books is apparently still popular today, so maybe it's not. It is certainly different from most films seen today, but those who have read the books should enjoy it and others will as well.
The children are largely unknown; for many this is their first acting appearance on either the big, or small, screen. They do seem to work pretty well together, and they are the primary people on the screen for much of the time, so how they interact with each other is very important. Swallows and Amazon is an enjoyable adaptation of the book, and hopefully today's children will still enjoy this too, and perhaps if it's successful enough, some of the other books in the series will be adapted as well.