Swallows & Amazons: Britishness Runs Rampant In This Upgraded Famous Five

This is the tale of the four Walker children named John, Susan, Tatty and Roger. They have a dream to escape the parental eye of their mother, Mrs Walker (Kelly Macdonald). After a telegram is sent to father in the South China Sea giving them permission to sale to a nearby island, they are delighted. But when they arrive, they realize that they are not alone. The battle for control of this island teaches them the skills of survival, the bonds of friendship and the importance integrity as well as grit and perserverance.Two sisters have also set up camp there, the Blackett sisters to be precise or as they like to be called, The Amazons (Seren Hawkes & Hannah Jayne Thorp), with whom the Walkers must fight to control the island. Set in early twentieth century Britain against the beautiful backdrop of the Lake District, Swallows & Amazons is a joyous adventure for all the family. But with Britain on the precipice of war and a spy looking for Uncle Jim Blackett AKA Captain Flint (Rafe Spall), real battles are never far away, subsequently turning the quiet Lake District into something else entirely.

Based on author Arthur Ransome’s children’s books of the 1930s and 1940s, Swallows & Amazons is a quite conservative film. It depicts the summer holidays of a middle class Walker family. We have the mother Mrs Walker, played superbly well by Kelly Macdonald (Brave). Then there are the children, starting with eldest, and Captain John Walker (Dane Hughes). We also have Tatty Walker (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen), the “do-things-by-the-book” eldest sister Susan Walker (Orla Hill) with the lookout Roger Walker (Bobby McCulloch). The film adaptation of Swallows & Amazons is a 1930s Famous Five-esque period drama with: tea, cakes, sailboats and the scene of British imperial colonialism but most importantly, an island. Who knows, there might be treasure on it. Famous Five, much?! The Walker children are reminiscent of Beth, Franny and Jo in Faraway Tree or even Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy in Narnia. All we need now is Timmy the dog and we’d have our Famous Five. I think this is what Boris and Nigel were imagining when they were persuading the British people to vote out.

The Walker Children. Swallows & Amazons is uncanny to any of those “Very British” children’s stories in the first half of 20th century Britain
(Swallows & Amazons, StudioCanal)

To begin with, I found the kids were typical of the upper class. They were too nice without any grit about them thus born with a silver spoon in their mouths. But then as the movie continues, we see John show a bit of personality as well as his constant bickering with his sister Susan who makes a dog’s dinner out of cooking fish. He subjects himself to making a lot of mistakes and henceforth putting his siblings in constant peril, especially when Roger nearly drowns but that wasn’t just down to John. But as the eldest, it is customary to get blamed for things even if it is not your fault. That was mostly because of Roger’s innately acquired the childish trait of curiosity. What will happen if I lean over the boat and thrash the water with stick? Man overboard! The amount of times Roger partook in foolish activities, began to get tedious but he’s a kid and that’s what kids do.

They do dumb things, but I still would have made him walk the plank. Each child breaks the “public school” stereotype and I’m jolly glad. I think my favourite character is the grumpy yet kind Jim Turner. Rafe Spall (The Big Short) as Jim Turner or Captain Flint (nod to Treasure Island). He’s a rather dashing gentleman but has been somewhat sexualized as a mysterious spy; looking all ragged with his constant brooding. Jim Turner must have been based on Arthur Ransome himself, with the ambiguous links to Russia and all. Curious, curious indeed. Jim Turner has a quick temper, a resourceful mind but is a friend to those who win his respect, very uncanny to Captain Flint in Starz’ Black Sails.

Peggy (Hannah Jayne Thorp) & Nancy Blackett (Seren Hawkes) AKA The Amazons
(Swallows & Amazons, StudioCanal)

The mysterious spy-arc has a lot to do with hidden documents and stolen papers. It’s very clichéd but that is often a trait of “Very British” films like these. After Moriarty (Sherlock) and C (Spectre), Andrew Scott (The Hollow Crown) seems the new go-to British actor to play your villain. He plays a proper John Dillinger-looking agent. His narrative runs side-by-side with kid’s own one, until they link up in the film’s climax which involves Jim Turner’s pistol, a seaplane and a few British taunts. This scene is textbook Enid Blyton with its mid-20th century Britishness. It couldn’t be more British if it tried, though the comedic elements are very Dad’s Army. Enid Blyton developed a reputation for creating impossible situations and this follows that rule. In addition, the elements of physical comedy throughout the movie are worthy of Michael Gambon’s Godfrey and Toby Jones’ Manwaring in the 2016 Dad’s Army reboot.

The film does a grand job of representing Northern British culture, not only through the setting but through characters like Mr Jackson and Mrs Jackson, played by Harry Enfield (The Windsors) and Jessica Hynes (Doctor Who). Every scene that those two have together is gold. Filled with excellent performances from the cast, wonderful set pieces and a scintillating musical score, Swallows & Amazons is a good bit of fun for all the family.

You’re a duffer if you don’t watch this!