Swallows And Amazons
Cert: PG / 97 mins / Dir. Philippa Lowthorpe / Trailer
In a rare display of cinematic synchronicity, we get a Summer-holiday adventure movie which is about an adventure during the Summer-holidays (The Purge, take note). This re-telling of Swallows And Amazons still has its quintessentially English vintage-setting and the earth-tones colour palette to match, but largely manages to avoid the Jolly Hockey-Sticks™ trap many of us were fearing. While there are cultural nods that the younger audience members may need explaining, the core of the story is more about the social interaction between children, making it pretty timeless.
Full disclosure, this was my introduction to Swallows And Amazons. I haven't seen the 1974 film, and if we covered the book(s) in school, I've long since forgotten all about it (although Mrs Blackout has very fond memories of both). This is worth mentioning because Phillippa Lowthorpe's 2016 adaptation features a new 'espionage' aspect which, while it hasn't exactly caused controversy, is the kind of thing that will always concern the purists.
That said I didn't notice the join, and having spies in a children's adventure/drama set three years before the Second World War feels perfectly natural to me. And with the story centering around six youngsters, this is very much A Children's Film. Which brings us to the downside, unfortunately. Let's just say that the talents of performance-delivery are not distributed evenly throughout the young cast, and it occasionally feels a bit like the Children's Film Foundation*1. That never quite derails things, but the screenplay is already torn between wanting to stick to the ethos of a more innocent drama and wanting to bring more edge to the source material, so ropey acting is an unwelcome distraction.
But above such trifling matters, Swallows And Amazons is a difficult film to actively dislike, because it's clearly coming from a place of great affection. While it's by no means perfect, this would have been very easy to get disastrously wrong, and Lowthorpe's vision holds it all together well. Kelly Macdonald, Rafe Spall and Andrew Scott are always great value for money, and Jessica Hynes and Harry Enfield bring a lightness of touch to the background. It's maybe a little televisual, but I'm glad the story has been told as a 90 minute film rather than being split into episodes.
As much as it sounds patronising or reductive to describe Swallows And Amazons as 'a sweet little film', that's precisely what it is. And there's no shame whatsoever in that…
It's a bit Famous Five of course, but it's also a bit 39 Steps.
This is a Sunday afternoon movie, and the cinema or your sofa will be fine either way.
Just about, yes.
No, but it's in the top half of the list.
Level 2: This film's got Kelly Macdonald in it, who starred in Trainspotting all those years ago alongside Ewan 'Kenobi' McGregor.
*1 And while I'm not going to be so callous as to name them here, the worst offender in this department is so wooden that the film's outdoor setting meant they needed two fresh applications of creosote throughout production…
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
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