Amid the myriad of crash-bang-wallop blockbusters released in Cinemas this Summer, in sails something a bit softer – Swallows and Amazons. Based on Arthur Ransome’s beloved 1930 novel, it’s a supposedly timeless tale, once again bought to life on the big screen by director Phillippa Lowthorpe. But up against such cinematic heavy hitters such as Finding Dory or Jason Bourne, does it sink or swim?
Swallows depicts the exploits of the young and plucky Walker children as they set sail on the Lake District, engaging in faux-pirate warfare with local scallywags the Blackett sisters over a mysterious island, and in the process putting stop to a devious Russian spy plot. You’d be forgiven for thinking the film a tad cut and paste, with two plot lines running almost in opposition to one another throughout. You’d be correct too, as therein stands the main problem with the film.
Frankly, as celebrated as the book series is, the story and characters are dated, and the plot is fairly uneventful. Whilst a screenwriter should always try to keep as true and respectful to the source material as possible, it should also be their job to not simply copy the dialogue or plot verbatim. Books don’t just jump from page to screen, they require finessing and some tinkering in order to turn a hefty novel into a film with a 90 minute runtime.
Here though, there has been little attempt to soften up the ham-fisted dialogue, one-note characters or the rather boring plot. The addition of a spy/espionage plot thread is small potatoes , and as previously mentioned, feels tacked on as opposed to an integrated part of the story. The little drama that can be mined from a bunch of kids playing about in sail boats on a lake is hardly engrossing, whilst the cheap climax involving a sea plane is ludicrous (it also doesn’t help that our main protagonists have no effect at all in how this situation is resolved).
Speaking of protagonists…there’s no kind way to say it – the child actors here are not exactly helping matters. Maybe it is the fault of the bare basic and tinny dialogue or the lack of any decent characterisation, but the performances here range from incredibly annoying to simply unengaging, as if lines were being read off the page for the first time. It’s not just the kids though – Kelly MacDonald as the Walker children’s mother is at her most substandard, whilst Andrew Scott’s villain is nothing to really write home about. Only Rafe Spall comes across as decent, though his performance mostly consists of snarls and grunts.
As Summer family fare goes, Swallows and Amazons contains nothing to offend or harm. But it also contains nothing to entertain or engage either, thanks to an adaptation that fails to improve on the shortcomings of a book written nearly 90 years ago and wooden performances from an inexperienced cast of young actors. The music is great and the pictures are pretty, but any substance has sadly been chucked overboard!
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