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.