Based on British author Arthur Ransome’s popular children’s books of the 1930s and 1940s, “Swallows and Amazons” is, on the face of it, a fairly conservative film. Detailing the summer vacation adventures of the upper middle-class Walker family, it is a relaxed piece set in the summer of 1935, in a heritage England of Dundee cake, small boats and blithe acceptance of a broadly colonialist outlook. It is an England where the machinations of Russian spies can be safely foiled in time for tea by a band of plucky children. It is the fictional England to which many Britons who voted for Brexit aspire to return.
Properly understood as a fiction, this rose-tinted world of kids who covet knives in order to whittle sticks — rather than, say, to stab a schoolmate — makes for a very charming, fairly twee, entirely respectable adventure. Of the five Walker children, the standout is adorable moppet Bobby McCulloch as Roger, the youngest of the kids to be allowed to camp without adults on an island on one of the great lakes of Cumbria’s Lake District (modeled on Coniston Water’s Peel Island, though not named as such here or in the books).
The film makes an attempt from the get-go to address an issue that even Ransome recognized after he published the series’ first book in 1930: The Walker children, especially eldest boy John, are far too nice, in addition to being almost superhuman paradigms of competence and British pluck. Here, Dane Hughes’s John is more petulant and error-prone, lashing out at his younger siblings on occasion and fighting particularly with his eldest sister Susan — herself no longer the miniature female Bear Grylls of the book, instead making a complete hash of cooking a fish. It’s all more straightforwardly adolescent and likely more relatable for audiences used to the epic temper tantrums and sulks of the “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” gangs.
As an adaptation of that first book, “Swallows and Amazons” also functions as a rather complex piece of meta-fiction. That may enrage Ransome purists, but need not concern the film’s primary market of British parents and grandparents looking for something wholesome to do with the family this summer. Ransome was, in real life, a gentleman spy, who wrote himself into his novels as Jim Turner, nicknamed Captain Flint. Ransome’s fictional avatar is never named as a spy — a rare instance of an author’s alter ago being less glamorous than the reality. Andrea Gibb’s script reimagines Jim Turner as a roguish agent, blending fact and fiction with a fair amount of ingenious revisionism and borrowing Ransome’s real MI6 codename, S76. As in real life, his close association with Russia is regarded with suspicion.
In keeping with the trend for sexing up this character, established by an excellent 2010 musical theater adaptation of the book, Rafe Spall’s Turner is a rather dashing fellow — worlds away from the spluttering buffoon essayed by Ronald Fraser in the same role in 1974’s somewhat iffy but sweet screen version. All adaptations to date have diverged from the portrait Ransome painted of himself in the books — both in text and in his cult illustrations — as fat and bald, with a quick temper and resourceful mind.
The spy narrative here involves a barely-there McGuffin to do with stolen military papers, at least giving Andrew Scott acres of room to have fun playing a proper 1930s-style enemy agent; it largely runs in parallel to the kids’ adventures, until a dramatic third-act convergence involving a sea-plane. It’s a stunt that feels more of a piece with Enid Blyton’s lusty disregard for plausibility than the studied logic of even Ransome’s most adventurous moments. Still, one can hardly blame Gibbs and helmer Philippa Lowthorpe — a BAFTA-winning TV director making her feature debut — for attempting to introduce a little more jeopardy to a plot that otherwise chiefly involves the right to name an island.
An area where the film excels is in visually capturing the romance of mucking about in small boats. Our introduction to Swallow, the small dinghy from which the Walker children derive their collective nickname, feels properly significant in the way that the first entrance of a love interest might in a different type of film. Julian Court’s camera lingers lovingly on every spar, rope and cleat, making the most of a beautifully authentic, clinker-built little boat clearly sourced with every care by production designer Suzie Davies. It’s the type of dinghy you don’t really see much any more, and as such functions as something of a metaphor for the film itself — it really is a throwback, but an essentially delightful one.
While this “Swallows and Amazons” is probably too sweet and slight to launch a long-running, blockbusting franchise adapting every book in the series — never mind splitting some volumes in two à la “The Hunger Games” et al — it’s heartening to see Ransome’s fiction taking on a new and more independent form, suggesting an ongoing relevance for a series of books that could easily be viewed as too dated for modern children. As the kids put it: Swallows and Amazons forever.