Film 2018 – Swallows and Amazons


It’s my working Sunday again, which influenced my choice this week to a film I’ve already written about, here.

This is the third time I’ve seen this film, the second time on DVD, and to be frank I’ve no new thoughts to add to those I recorded in 2016, home from a visit to the now-closed Showcase Cinema.

With more time to consider the film and the degree to which it succeeds in animating a book both classic and archaic, it becomes even more a film of two halves, two stories rather, joined at the hip in a manner that is well done enough without ever convincing anyone here for Arthur Ransome that it was worth doing.

On the one hand, we have a decent representation of the bones of Ransome’s original story, the children’s holiday adventure, the first of its kind: camping and boating and rivalry and making up your own world that is perfectly real behind the adults’ backs. I’m still no more convinced of Seren Hawkes as Nancy Blackett, but one understrength child actor is bearable, and any defects in the young lady’s wooden performance are more than made up for by those of the Swallows, and especially the two genuinely child actors, Teddie-Rose Mallesen-Allen as ‘Tatty’, and Bobby McCullough as Roger.

And I simply cannot watch young Bobby onscreen without a sense of awe that fortunately does not interfere with the flow of the film: he isn’t acting, he’s a seven year old boy from 1929 (sod the film’s updating to 1935) brought into the Twenty-First Century. They’re all good, but he just is Roger Walker, untouched by nearly ninety years since the Altounyans spent that summer on Coniston Water.

Whilst it would have been nice to have had more of the film take place on Windermere and Coniston Water, the modern world has impinged too much on the former, always the most accessible Lake from the south-east and thus the most commercial. Derwent Water may be wrong for ever so many reasons, none of which will affect anyone not a purist, but it has the advantage of consistency: unlike the 1974 film, the constant distraction of watching the little boats glide from lake to lake to lake indiscriminately is not present. And it is, of course, beautiful from every angle.

It’s still noticeable that, even though the film explicitly acknowledges it’s taking place in the Lake District, there isn’t the faintest effort to provide a Cumbrian or Westmoreland accent. If anything, particularly in the Blackett family, the accent drifts vaguely in the direction of Yorkshire, which is heresy so far as I am concerned.

That aside, there’s a comfortable familiarity to language in use by those Northerners. In the book, Ransome makes no play with accents or dialect. Beyond individual characteristics, the Amazons speak with the same middle-class voice as the Swallows. Like his prose generally, Ransome goes for a clear, limpid, smooth speech that assumes intelligence on his listeners’ parts but which never offers them any difficulties.

The film, however, unashamedly goes for northern epithets. Peggy Blackett calls her elder sister ‘cleverclogs’, and the General Store lady, upset at her corned beef display being knocked down, sends Tatty out of the shop with the words ‘you cheeky monkey’. Not having been brought up in Cumbria in the Twenties/Thirties, I can’t speak to local authenticity, but this is the language of my East Manchester boyhood all right.

Of course, the film still has its other half to negotiate, the spy plot that’s half John Buchan and half Arthur Ransome’s background. The book’s Jim Turner/Captain Flint has always been Ransome himself, spiritually as well as physically, and so the idea of turning him into the secret agent Ransome appears to have been in Russia during the Revolution at least has the merit of authenticity, though turning him into Rafe Spall doesn’t.

Spall underplays his part with a genuine sense of period overlaid by a low-key Buchan heartiness, which provides a useful contrast with the spicier Andrew Scott as Laslow, supercilious and cold, adapting his manic Moriarty to a role demanding naturalness. For what it’s worth, with the exception of the attempt by the two little boats to halt the seaplane from taking off – which in isolation is exactly the kind of thing children of their age and resourcefulness would think of trying – the spy plot works and works effectively. The jury is still out as to whether trying it in the same film should have been done at all.

As a Ransome fan possessed of all twelve books in those classic greenbound Jonathan Cape hardbacks, naturally I find against the film. But I enjoy it too much, and respond too much to those parts that represent the book at its most honest to hold it too badly against the film.

It’s getting on for three years since Swallows and Amazons was filmed and there are no proposals of which I am aware to adapt other books in the series. And Bobby McCullough is now ten, or thereabouts, so unless you’re going to clone him and grow the clone to age seven (or at worst eight), more fundamental damage would need to be done to Swallowdale to have him repeat his role. More’s the pity. I’d love to see a decent stab taken at that, at least once, especially if they genuinely climb Coniston Old Man as part of it.

But this film enables me to go back there whenever I want, not just to the Lake of 1929, but the sitting room at Brigham Street where I received my first Swallows and Amazons book from my Dad: he’d have found Rafe Spall and Andrew Scott stupid, but he’d have drunk in every other bit of it, the way I do.

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