Arthur Ransome’s 1930 classic Swallows and Amazons is a wistful tribute to youth’s intrepid spirit. Written before thoughts of a second world war even seemed possible, the novel harks back to those halcyon British summers where children camped under the stars, sailed great lakes and grazed knees weren’t just a Pokémon Go-related injury. But while this second cinematic adaptation – following 1974’s similarly sedate attempt – adds some sleuthing hijinks to the faithfully transcribed charm and endeavour, it struggles to raise the stakes enough to really set pulses racing.
The story chronicles the summer holiday adventures of the Walker children – John, Susan, Tatty and Roger – as they set sail in their dingy named Swallow to make camp on a small island in the middle of the Lake District. When they arrive they find two girls, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, aka the Amazons, have already established a fort and a battle commences to decide who will keep the island. Meanwhile, the Blackett’s reclusive Uncle Jim Turner (Rafe Spall) hides on a houseboat as a pair of dastardly spooks, played by Andrew Scott and Dan Skinner, attempt to steal his secrets.
For a film that sets itself out as a call to return to a time before health and safety went mad – let the children play with knives and matches, for goodness sake! – it’s somewhat ironic that it falters precisely because it plays things too safe. Dropping a basket of sandwiches into the lake is about as close to disaster as the Walker children get in this cosy rather than exciting tale – but don’t worry, they manage to save Mrs Jackson’s fruitcake.
Director Philippa Lowthorpe and screenwriter Abigail Gibb try to inject some much needed peril into proceedings with an espionage-themed subplot – inspired by Ransome’s real-life escapades as an MI6 agent – but even that is handled too tamely to really build any momentum in the story. The mysteries are blown too quickly, the conflicts are resolved too easily, and for all the scrapes the children get themselves into you never doubt that they’ll make it home in time for tea by the end.
Lowthorpe directs with plenty of warmth and wit – the expansive Lake District setting is as breathtaking as you could possibly hope for – and the entire cast put in solid performances, especially the underused pairing of Jessica Hynes and Harry Enfield as a dyed-in-the-wool b’n’b owner and her grumpily mischievous husband. It’s just a shame Lowthorpe doesn’t attempt to challenge the audience with anything more dangerous than soggy sarnies. The result is a quaint, confident, quintessentially British slice of frivolity. Basically, it’s Bake Off: The Movie.
Runtime: 97 mins; Genre: Adventure; Released: 19 August 2016;
Director: Philippa Lowthorpe; Writers: Andrea Gibb, Arthur Ransome;
Cast: Jessica Hynes, Andrew Scott, Harry Enfield, Rafe Spall