One glorious summer in 1920s England, Mrs. Walker (Kelly Macdonald) brings her baby and four older children: John (Dane Hughes), Susan (Orla Hill), Tatty (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen) and Roger (Bobby McCulloch) for a holiday at the Lake District. On their journey by train the children encounter the mysterious Jim Turner (Rafe Spall) when he hides in their cabin, seemingly to escape two sinister men. Seeking adventure in the great outdoors the kids convince Mrs. Walker to let them sail a boat called Swallow to explore the lake and the forest. Despite a shaky start with some setbacks, the siblings pull together and learn how to fend for themselves in the wild. In the midst of their fun they discover the island has already been claimed by sisters Nancy (Seren Hawkes) and Peggy Blackett (Hanna Jayne Thorp). The fearsome and resourceful duo not only have their own vessel, the Amazon, but happen to be nieces of Jim Turner, whom the imaginative Walker kids believe to be a pirate. Before long the Swallow crew face the Amazons in a challenge to determine who owns the island, only to uncover an even deadlier threat posed by a shifty spy Lazlow (Andrew Scott).
The second film adaptation of Arthur Ransome's cherished children's classic, following Claude Whatham's delightful 1974 version (a personal favourite), captures the essence of the author's vision whilst telling a significantly altered story. Screenwriter Andrea Gibb, formerly an actress on classic BBC series All Creatures Great and Small though latterly the award-winning scribe behind films like AfterLife (2003), Dear Frankie (2004) and Nina's Heavenly Delights (2006), diverts from the source material in two notable areas. First, the now rechristened Tatty Walker sports a name less likely to induce titters. Which is understandable given the adorably over-imaginative child heroine plays such a crucial role in this story the last thing any fan would want is to have her sneered at by snarky millennials. Secondly, and more surprisingly, the new adaptation adds a spy subplot to the mix inspired by Arthur Ransome's real-life exploits with MI6.
For long-time fans the introduction of a John Buchan-style espionage angle to this hitherto genteel children's story is a trifle jarring. Not to mention the inclusion of honest-to-god action sequences where Rafe Spall clings to the side of a speeding train or the children try to lasso a plane (!) Heck, at one point John even threatens someone with a gun! Yet thanks to solid writing and direction and polished performances the thriller subplot proves quite compelling. The film manages to milk some potent tension between the inquisitive kids and Spall's outwardly suspicious Jim Turner without damaging those core themes essential to Ransome's original text. Written in part as a love letter to one of Britain's most picturesque regions, Swallows and Amazons remains one of the great hymns to the interaction between childhood and the great outdoors, something Philippa Lowthorpe's fresh adaptation wisely preserves. As Mrs. Walker remarks at one point, she does not want her children to grow up afraid of the world.
Once the Walker children set sail the film truly takes flight. Capturing the unique naturalistic magic inherent in Ransome's story, the plot charts small-scale, personal though nonetheless thrilling triumphs and setbacks. Reflecting Ransome's belief that interacting with nature is good for the soul, Swallows and Amazons shows how becoming self-reliant teaches the children not just survival skills but the value of responsibility and respect both for each other and people at large. Note the scene where Tatty and John meet two grubby-looking strangers who pass on invaluable knowledge about how to build a fire, along with a lesson about not judging by first appearances. Gibb's screenplay exhibits a keen grasp of a quirky English regional character and gruff good humour that is well-portrayed by solid, if somewhat underused supporting players Jessica Hynes and Harry Enfield. The likable, fresh-faced young leads also inhabit their characters to highly engaging effect. Little Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen and Bobby McCulloch prove especially deft scene-stealing charmers, with Tatty's overactive imagination and Roger's vulnerability key components in the story. Filmed on location at the Lake District, the film admittedly outdoes the 1974 version in terms of cinematic sweep as Lowthorpe and cinematographer Julian Court take advantage of the scenery to create stirring images of summer magic.