Review: Swallows and Amazons (2016)

Swallows and Amazons

In a summer full of hyper-kinetic action movies, most of them either animated or so full of CGI they might as well be, and all aimed at kids, Swallows and Amazons is a true breath of fresh air. Swallows and Amazons has things like characters, a plot you can follow and tracking shots that last more than half a second.

It’s an old fashioned movie, set in 1935, and it’s all the better for it. There is no attempt to update the setting or throw knowing nods to the contemporary world in to it, the direction works well with the setting, and if Captain Flint is now a spy, rather than a travel writer writing his memoirs, the injection of mild peril that this gives the film doesn’t stray too far from the spirit of the original.

The story sees the Walker family, Mrs Walker, John, Susan, Tatty and Roger (and the baby), go on holiday to the Lake District. Mr Walker is at sea with the Royal Navy in the South China Sea. The kids can run wild in the country side, and they get special permission from father to going sailing on the lake (for those who have read the book, the wonderful telegram “Better drowned than duffers, if not duffers, won’t drown”, is in the film). They camp on the island, and have a run in with the Amazons- owners of another small sailing boat. The Amazons uncle, living in a houseboat, is stalked by a pair of Russian spies, a plot line in addition to the book, that adds a bit of movie style adventure to the story.

There was some consternation from relatives of the character that Tatty was based on that her name had been changed to Tatty from Titty but to be honest, I don’t think anything could have been done about that because in this day and age, the name Titty is just a non starter.

Talking of Tatty though, Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen does a sterling job in the role, reminding me of Georgie Henley’s turn as Lucy in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. But the real star in our books is Bobby McCulloch’s Roger. The youngest of the kids, Bobby portrays the littlest who is determined to keep up with the bigger kids, regardless of the age difference absolutely perfectly. Every family with three or more kids has a Roger, and we have our own too:

In fact one of the strengths of this adaptation is the brilliant way it portrays the bickering between siblings- from John’s attempts to be in charge and grown up, to Susan’s frustrations with him for being rude and unfair to the littler kids, it deals with the interaction perfectly. As parents, the best parts for us were watching the kids interact; they are such a talented bunch of actors, and have the whole family thing down to a tee, and were marvellous to watch as a result.

The kids (7 and 9), loved the whole setting, and the idea of running wild. The spy sub plot appealed to our lad, while the camping and friendship aspects were what kept our 7 year old daughter interested.

Part of the struggle films like Swallows and Amazons have is in remaining relevant to today’s kids. 1935 is a long long way away from today but aside from the costume, and the odd trip to a BBC costume drama prepared shop, the film negates most of the issues by focusing on the characters and their interaction. Any kids who has watched Harry Potter will be immediately familiar with the steam train, and lets face it, camping is camping. The only thing that stands out as peculiar to our kids generation (and for the most part mine too), is the utter freedom that the kids have- off on their own in a boat, camping on an island for days on end? My mum would have had kittens.

When I was little and read Swallows and Amazons, it was this freedom, similar to that found in Blyton’s Famous Five books,  that attracted me to the books as much as the stories. I longed to be John, or Julian, allowed to range at will, treated with respect by adults, in a world that hadn’t existed for half a century.

And it works, our children enjoyed the film tremendously. Two of them have already put in a request for the Blu Ray once it’s released, which is always a good indicator. It’s rare that you get a film today that gives it’s characters space to breathe, kids movies are particularly guilty of this as attention spans are considered to get shorter and shorter, but Swallows and Amazon’s does that and is all the better for it.

I was disappointed by the BFG, I thought it was both close to the original story in terms of setting and character design but miles away in intent (Dahl’s books are dark, the movie is prime Spielberg and a little too sweet as a result), Swallows and Amazons on the other hand is a little further away in terms of story, what with the additions of the spy plot but miles closer in terms of intent, and works wonderfully as a result.

Swallows and Amazons is out on general release on 19 August.