Friday, 26 August 2016

Swallows and Amazons

This Lake District tale now includes Soviet agents but it still casts a nostalgic spell

Written by Ben Felsenburg
Ben-Felsenburg-colour-176There are people who have a very peculiar insistence on film adaptations remaining absolutely true to the book: among the most diehard devotees, even the slightest deviation is frowned upon. The latest screen version of Swallows And Amazons has attracted some testy sniping for changing a name – the sniggerprevention police have rechristened little Titty as Tatty – and for the wholesale injection of a spy thriller into the children’s adventure by Arthur Ransome. Now, while rigid Ransomites may be left bristling, for the most part families and those who look back fondly on reading the book when young will be gratifyingly satisfied by the results.

Much of the story has in any event been left intact. Hardly have Mrs Walker and her four children arrived for their stay on the Jacksons’ farm in the Lake District than the youngsters are messing about on a boat – the Swallow – and camping out on a seemingly uninhabited island. Except they are not alone, for two local sisters and self-styled pirates, Nancy and Peggy, sail their own skiff, the Amazon, and have claimed the land as their own and will fight for it.

So far, so familiar – for Ransome’s readers – and the sense of 1930s period is loving and warm without being slavishly painstaking (take a bow, Philippa Lowthorpe, who directs with the same low-key brisk efficiency that she has brought to Call The Midwife and last year’s fine BBC adaptation of Cider With Rosie).

There’s a relish for the reckless fun in which children in a pre-health-and-safety age could indulge – stretching to whittling knives, camp fires and near-drownings – and the young actors are all utterly convincing and quite brilliant as they throw themselves headlong into the no-holds-barred battle between Swallows and Amazons.

Their elders are rather more mixed: while you entirely buy Kelly Macdonald playing Mrs Walker as a maternal Highlander with a decidedly bohemian streak, Harry Enfield’s cameo as Mr Jackson is a distracting and unwise comedy turn. The other star must surely be the Lake District itself, and the intoxicating beauty of its sun-dappled foliage and rough-hewn landscape. But woven into the original tale is a whole new plot that might have been ripped from the pages of John Buchan: Nancy and Peggy’s Uncle Jim (Rafe Spall) is now a sinister figure on the run from two even more shadowy characters, one of whom is played by Andrew Scott, who you’ll recognise as Moriarty from TV’s Sherlock – and you can’t get more suspicious than that – and sure enough the duo prove to be dastardly Soviet secret agents (in a knowing nod to Ransome’s years as a reporter in revolutionary Russia).

It’s a twist that eventually takes the film on a wild departure from not only the story but also the tone of Ransome’s novel, yet even though the climax is more than slightly deranged it’s all done with enough conviction that the spell is never entirely broken

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