Gather round, kiddies, and behold a time before videogames — before television, even — when children roamed free and were forced to relieve their boredom with nothing more than a couple of sticks and their imaginations… and they relished it. Gather round, parents, and marvel as a mother grants permission for her four children to go sailing and camping on their own recognizance, with no adult supervision at all, for days. Because, as that mother says, “I don’t want them frightened of the world,” so they have to learn how to deal with it on their own. Imagine that!
Not only had helicopters not yet been invented, neither had helicopter parenting.
It is the summer of 1935, and the four eldest Walker children — John (Dane Hughes), about 15; Susan (Orla Hill: Song for Marion), about 13; Tatty (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen), around 8; and Roger (Bobby McCulloch), maybe 6 — are vacationing in England’s Lake District with their mother (Kelly Macdonald: Anna Karenina, Brave) when they ask to be allowed to sail, in a little boat called Swallow, to an “undiscovered” island, just for the excitement of it. Dad, captain of a naval ship away in the Far East, is consulted via telegram, and his reply basically says that they should go ahead, and if they die, they weren’t worthy of the adventure anyway; everyone approves of this. And so they are off. They do not wear life jackets. There is actual playing with fire at one point. The whole district is awash with pirates and spies (maybe) and seagoing rivals (definitely) with their own claim on the island, the crew of the dinghy Amazon (Seren Hawkes and Hannah Jayne Thorp). There are daring exploits, moments of cliffhanger suspense, and cake. It is a glorious time.
The first novel in the beloved series of children’s books by Arthur Ransome has gotten a few tweaks for its second big-screen outing (the first was in 1974). In the books, Tatty is called Titty, which, you know, simply would not work today. More substantially, screenwriter Andrea Gibb (Dear Frankie) and director Philippa Lowthorpe have whipped up some intrigue not in the book but totally in keeping with its spirit of childlike invention and fearlessness. Is “Captain Flint” (Rafe Spall: The BFG, The Big Short) a pirate? He does live on a houseboat and have a parrot, after all. And why is he being pursued, or perhaps investigated, by the mysterious Lazlov (Andrew Scott: Alice Through the Looking Glass, Victor Frankenstein)? Is it merely the perspective of kids hopped up on the thrill of crafting their own adventure that makes the grownups seem shifty and nefarious? Or is something actually fiendish really going on?
From the gorgeous Lake District scenery to the delightful young cast — and the game older cast, which also features the indispensable Jessica Hynes (Chalet Girl, Doctor Who) as the landlady of the B&B where the Walkers stay — Swallows and Amazons is utterly charming. This is a genuine treat, old-fashioned in the best way, and an essential reminder that young imaginations require space to soar in.