Starring: Virginia McKenna, Ronald Fraser, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton
Director: Claude Whatham
This big screen version of Arthur Ransome’s classic story dates from 1974, a time that in terms of its attitude to childhood now seems hardly less distant than the novel’s between-the-wars setting. The Walker children are on their hols in the Lake District – a week devoted to the idyllic pleasures of sailing their boat, the Swallow, and camping out on an island. Perhaps because making a movie with young children and sailing dinghies is a technical, time-consuming business, not a lot happens in director Claude Whatham and scriptwriter David Wood’s pared down adaptation. The film’s rhythm is episodic and pleasantly inconsequential. The children get to be little Bear Gryllses, learning about fishing and foraging, setting up makeshift tents with blankets and ropes. They have a run-in with the aptly named Amazons, some very strapping mean girls who have a boat of their own. There’s a comedy relief adult, Uncle Jim (Ronald Fraser), a silly old duffer who is Ransome sending himself up. And there’s a little bit of intrigue to do with some burglars and Uncle Jim’s stolen trunk.
Not exactly action-packed, but it’s plenty to be going on with, because for the children the real adventure – and this the film captures very well – is being out and about by themselves, with no parents to order them about and with the world (or at any rate Coniston Water) as their oyster. Yes, modern kids might struggle to connect with the frightfully posh, relentlessly upbeat Walker children, and they might find a good part of their seafaring chatter incomprehensible, but they would probably still long to be in their shoes, and that’s all that matters.
For adults, watching Swallows and Amazons will create an ache of nostalgia. The whole thing is steeped in a kind of naivety and innocence that seem unobtainable for modern children. The film benefited from a leisurely seven week shoot, making use of the exact locations that Ransome referred to in his book, and the young actors were allowed to mess about on the water in a manner that probably wouldn’t be permitted in these health and safety conscious days: their acting skills might be variable, but they all seen well up to handling a boat. On this excellent HD transfer, Denis Lewiston’s Eastmancolor cinematography has the gauzy shimmer of a Newlyn School painting. The scenery is enchanting, the film is packed with covetable vintage trimmings, including gorgeous clinker-construction dinghies (all wood, no fibreglass), and it’s enough to turn the most confirmed shut-in into an outdoors person.
The Blu-ray comes with a nice selection of extras. There are Interviews with Sophie Neville (Titty) and Suzanna Hamilton (Susan), who talk about how their sailing improved over the course of the shoot, how sweet Virginia McKenna was to them, and the director’s unusual approach to drawing performances from his young cast – the children weren’t allowed to see a script but had each scene explained to them as it was rehearsed and shot. There’s also an extremely interesting featurette that revisits the film’s key locations, such as Peel Island and Bank Ground farm, many of them largely unchanged.