Swallows and Amazons Review: Joyful to a Fault

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Swallows and Amazons represents an age-old subgenre of adventure films for children. In recreating the look and feel of these kinds of films, director Philippa Lowthorpe succeeds in spades. Here she adapts Arthur Ronsome’s 1930s children’s novel of the same name, a story of four siblings who sail to an island in the middle of a lake in the English countryside. Unbeknownst to them, they’ve stumbled upon a plot of espionage in the years leading up to the United Kingdom’s fight in World War II. The children, however, mostly pretend they’re in a pirate adventure until the situation grows dire.

Lowthorpe strikes a light and fluffy tone, one that experiences actors Rafe Spall and Kelly Macdonald, as the British spy and the children’s mother, respectively, have no problem playing in. But the child actors don’t quite have what it takes to hook us into the story, with a script that leans heavily on all the genre cliches surrounding its portrayal of children. The Walker children are caricatures for adults to giggle at and children to laugh at, with little for either to relate to or see themselves within. Therefore, aside from the jovial tone, which too often treads into outright cheese, Swallows and Amazons ends up feeling a bit lifeless.

There are fun sequences, and Spall does what he can to insert some genuine stakes into the film’s tone, but this is ultimately a half-baked effort to bring a simple, beloved novel to the screen. It’s setting ends up being the most interesting aspect of the film, with the innocence of England’s youth about to gain new facets as their country goes to war. The old-fashioned feel of the children playing works as well, a stark juxtaposition to more contemporary coming of age tales of the Information Age. So there are worse ways to spend your afternoon at the cinema, but Swallows and Amazons still struggles to gain its own independence amongst the cliches it all too happily wears. Grade: C+

By Matt Dougherty

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