Speaking as an Arthur Ransome fan and a Lake District buff, I have to say that this was nearly a very good film. And in large part, being the parts that were derived directly from the book, this was close to being an excellent adaptation. Those bits where the film dipped below its generally high standard were, naturally, when the absurd Russian spy plot was allowed to intrude, which included the out-of-whole-cloth all-action ending. It was decently done for what it was, and could have been very much worse, but what it represented was a lack of faith on the part of the Producers in the film that they felt it couldn’t perform without adding so uncharacteristic and ill-fitting a story.
We’re going to have to deal with that part of the film eventually, but first let’s look at what did go nearly all right, and this was the Walker family, and especially the Swallows. Dane Hughes, Orla Hill, Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen and Bobby McCulloch play John, Susan, Tatty and Roger respectively, and they are all completely convincing in their parts, but little Bobby McCulloch especially deserves praise for being perfect in every moment.
All the Swallows are written to their personas in the book, though changes have been made to the two elder siblings. Susan simply cannot, in 2016, be portrayed as the impossibly domestic, docile mother-substitute she is in the books, but by representing her gently-increased aggressiveness as a form of sibling rivalry with her dominating elder brother, a more modern female emerges without doing damage.
If anyone is shown to be out of character, it is Captain John. In the books, he is a natural leader, already a decent sailor, a totally trustworthy and honest boy. As might be expected from one of two of Ransome’s personae in the series: Captain Flint, balding, perspiring, fixed on writing his book, is Ransome in real life – that’s not ‘Mixed Moss’ that Jim Tyrner is working on, it’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – whereas John, a substitute for a real life elder sister, is the boy Ransome, bringing himself into the book to join in the games as the boy he was never allowed to be.
John Walker in the film is not a paragon. He accidentally breaks a window on the houseboat but doesn’t admit to it, he’s not as good a sailor, as Susan getting a crack on the head from the boom, and the loss of all their food demonstrates, and he has a tendency to blame his sister for whatever goes wrong.
I can understand, if I don’t welcome, the change, and this bleeds into the spy plot in due course. It alters the family dynamic to a degree, but not so much as to radically change the story, which is anchored in the utter naturalness of the younger pair and cannot escape being grounded as a children’s holiday, and a children’s adventure.
As in the book, the Amazons don’t come into the story until almost halfway through, though in the film, they appear out of nowhere, unforeshadowed. Surprisingly, the Blackett sisters have a distinctly minor role in the film, even though they are Jim Turner’s nieces. Hannah Jayne Thorp is very good as Peggy, though she’s a bit more assertive against her elder sister than is written, but the true disappointment is Captain Nancy: Seren Hawkes is simply not up to the standard of her fellow junior actors and actresses, being wooden in speech and personality whereas Captain Nancy has to be tomboy-forceful and bursting with life. I suspect this, more than anything else, is what reduces the Amazons’ role.
And she speaks with a strange, unplaceable accent that comes closer to Yorkshire than anything else. This is the place to make a few points about the film in general. The Walkers are southerners and speak as such: the film starts with their train journey from Portsmouth to Cumberland.
Now the Blackett girls are nearly as middle-class as the walkers in the book, but if the ‘Lake’ has been identified as being in Cumberland, then surely the locals, if not the Amazons, should betray a Cumberland drawl in their speech. (If we’re being technical, as Ransome’s ‘Lake’ was a composite of Coniston Water with the middle of Windermere inserted, the accent should strictly be a blend of Westmorland and Furness Lanacstrian). Harry Enfield and Jessica Hynes, as the Jacksons, are generic northerner, as in every other local in the film.
But authenticity is out for the afternoon. Mrs Walker’s accent has been shifted from Australian to Scottish for no apparent reason other than (presumably) to accommodate Kelly Macdonald whilst even Ransome’s map of the ‘Lake’, originally designed by Clifford Baker, has been totally transformed, with all the salient locations shuffled around. It’s not as if they’ve been redesigned to accommodate the actual lake being used for 99% of the sailing shots: this is Derwent Water (ironically, a genuinely Cumbrian lake).
Though the actual Lake on which ‘Swallow’ and ‘Amazon’ sail is Derwent Water, except for the few brief scenes of Jim Turner’s houseboat, which are, ironically, on Coniston Water, I shalln’t kick up a fuss: the filming is gorgeous and any film that allows itself that many spectacularly sunlit shots of the Jaws of Borrowdale, and the fells surrounding the Lake will get no complaints from me.
Though I was intrigued by the first shot of the ‘Lake’, a narrow, winding body of water with a single island in it, which corresponds to neither Coniston nor Derwent (nor even Windermere). I could not place it.
I suppose we are going to have to deal with the spy bit, or Rafe Spall and Andrew Scott won’t get to be mentioned. If it had to be done, it was at least cleverly done and integrated well into the story. Instead of Jim Turner being a kind of black sheep who’s knocked around the world and is now writing his memoirs, the Producers have borrowed the confirmation that Arthur Ransome himself was, in one degree or another, a British Agent feeding information during the Russian Revolution, and converted Turner into an active British spy, who has smuggled vital information out of Russia which, instead of taking to his superiors at MI-pick-a-number, he’s concealed on his remote houseboat in the Lake District (maybe this isn’t so well done after all).
But Turner – a decent if unspectacular performance from Spall – is being pursued by two Russian agents, Laslow (Andrew Scott being a very calm, cool, composed version of Andrew Scott in Sherlock) and his confederate (whose name and part I can’t find on any internet cast listing, not even imdb).
Through an entirely plausible set of circumstances, Commander Walker’s knife – entrusted to John but temporarily lent to Roger, who drops it into Flint’s boat when Laslow is searching it – John is blamed for the vandalisation of the houseboat and the theft of Mr Turner’s papers. His previous lack of candour tells against him and he, and the rest of the Swallows are banned from the Lake and returned to Jackson’s farm.
Where the children put all their several bits of info, work out that the Russians are holding Captain Flint prisoner on their island. So, in complete defiance of their banning, they steal ‘Swallow’ and join up with the Amazons to rescue him. John, having taken Turner’s service revolver, attempts to hold Laslow at gunpoint but is incapable of firing, especially as Turner is urging him to lower the gun.
So it all comes down to the big action ending, which, though well-made, is utterly stupid. By stringing a rope between both prows, the two little boats try to stop the seaplane from taking off by getting the rope across the floats. It’s a kids notion, and it’s doomed to disaster: both boats end up having to cut the rope to avoid being dragged into the Lake by the greater force of the seaplane.
Still, it buys Turner time to gnaw his way through his bonds (how old-fashioned) and force the plane to land, so the kids done good, the adults queue up to apologise to John, who is thus redeemed, and there’s time for a party on the houseboat and Captain Flint walking the plank in the grand manner.
That stupid ending, which really really doesn’t belong anywhere near this story, apart, most of Swallows and Amazons works with an easy and believable naturalness. There are still parts where inexplicable changes have been made – the story has been moved from 1929 to 1935 so as to drag it closer to the onset of war, despite the Russians not having anything to do with that terrible event, and the film containing no international elements at all.
And there’s a totally purposeless carnival in Rio, featuring women dressed up in Japanese costume that’s ridiculous in the extreme.
But let’s get back to Dane, Orla, Teddie-Rose and Bobby, who make this film the joy it was to watch, and on the strength of whose performances, I would dearly love to see a sequel. That depends on this being a success, and enough people holding their noses during the stupid bits, but I’d definitely sign up to watch a film adaptation of Swallowdale next.