Kelly McDonald

Swallows and Amazons

swallows

08/09/16

Although I was (indeed, still am) a voracious reader, I never read Swallows and Amazons as a child. I remember a copy of it on a school bookshelf, but it clearly wasn’t alluring enough to make me reach for it. I did see the rather marvellous Bristol Old Vic/Children’s Touring Partnership stage adaptation a few years ago, so I’m familiar with the story, and keen to see how it’s played here.

It’s a Thursday afternoon, so the kids are all back in school; today’s sparse audience is well and truly grown up. Which seems a little unfortunate as it gets going, because this is definitely a children’s film, with little of the crossover appeal of the stage production. Nostalgia, I suppose, is what draws these adults in and, even though this is clearly directed at younger viewers, it’s really a delight to watch.

Okay, so it’s a world bathed in a golden glow. Father might be away at war, and Uncle Jim(Rafe Spall) might be at risk from the Russian agents sent to capture him, but we’re soaking up the sunshine with the children, building dens and playing pirates. Life’s not too bad – even when there’s a war- provided you’re rich enough to go away for the whole summer, and your parents are liberal enough to let you camp out alone for days.

But it’s easy to mock the privileged lives depicted in so much children’s fiction from bygone days. And actually, in this film at least, there’s plenty that’s universal(ish): the difficulties of growing up and negotiating the awkward stage between child and adulthood; the sheer injustice of being disbelieved; the burning desire to be successful, and the pride that comes from knowing that you’re fighting for something that’s ‘right.’

The Swallows are the Walkers: John (Dane Hughes),Susan (Orla Hill), the controversially renamed Tatty (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen), and Roger (Bobby McCulloch). With their mother (Kelly Macdonald), they have come to spend the summer with Mr and Mrs Jackson (Harry Enfield and Jessica Hynes). The Amazons are local kids, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, and they’re outraged at the Walkers’ claim to ‘their’ island. The Swallows and Amazons declare war, but their friendly fight is in stark contrast to the battles being fought by Uncle Jim, as he tries to expose the dastardly Russian plans he has purloined. The children’s bravery, however, is real and their games teach them teamwork and resilience; in the end, of course, it’s only they who can save the day.

The cinematography is lush, all rolling hills and gorgeous landscapes, the verdant copses idyllic and sublime. And the baddies are scary enough to keep children enthralled. A worthwhile family film, I think… what a shame there are no children here too see it.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

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Special Correspondents

Special1

01/05/16

Whatever happened to Ricky Gervais? The glory days of The Office and Extras are now long gone and his occasional forays into cinema have amounted to a few average cameos in other people’s movies and the woeful laughter-free zone that was The Invention of Lying. His new movie, Special Correspondents, is a Netflix original (though actually not original at all, as it’s a remake of 2009 French comedy, Envoyes Tres Speciaux). And, though it pains me to say it, it’s a disaster – a ‘comedy’ that fails to raise so much as a smirk.

Gervais plays Ian Finch, a hapless sound engineer working alongside charmless, bombastic reporter, Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana) who has alienated all his colleagues at 365 News and  is now residing at Last Chance Saloon. Ian’s other workmate, Claire Maddox (Kelly McDonald) is the closest thing to a sympathetic character you’ll find in this sorry tale and she isn’t really given all that much to do. Ian is also lumbered with a shrew of a wife, Eleanor (Vera Farmiga) who has all the inherent charm of a car crash and who gleefully cheats on Ian with Frank (though to be fair, Frankdoesn’t know at the time who she is married to).

When a civil war breaks out in Ecuador, Ian and Frank are despatched to cover the story, but Ian, upset by the fact that Eleanor has just walked out on him, accidentally throws their tickets and passports into a passing garbage lorry, leaving them stranded in the USA. Realising that this was his last chance to make good, Frank persuades Ian to help him fake a series of reports from war-torn South America. They are actually holed up in a restaurant across the road with a couple of friends, the almost terminally thick Brigida (America Ferrara) and her husband Domingo (Raul Castillo).

It’s a slight idea and one that is never really nailed – instead, what we get is a lazy, written-by-numbers story featuring embarrassing racial stereotyping, and a series of plot twists you can see coming from several blocks away. More damningly, there’s hardly anyone here you can root for, as McDonald’s character aside, they all appear to be venal, self-interested scumbags with an eye on advancing their own careers. Furthermore, a scene that emulates a faked hostage video is uncomfortably close to images we’ve seen in real life that are a million miles away from anything humorous. I can’t help but wonder if, in the past,  the sadly absent Stephen Merchant acted as some kind of quality control for Gervais. Left to his own devices, he seems incapable of creating anything with any depth.

With a new David Brent movie looming on the horizon, the only hope is that he’s put a bit more effort into that script, because this one is frankly dead in the water.

1 star

Philip Caveney