After a number of films, TV series and stage adaptations, Arthur Ransome's beloved 1930 novel gets an all-new movie version. Shot in beautiful northern English settings with a lively cast, there's plenty of potential for it to become a classic in its own right. But screenwriter Andrea Gibb has tinkered with the plot, adding in a spy thriller plotline. And director Philippa Lowthorpe fails to muster up the suspense needed to make that work.
It's set in the summer of 1935, as Mrs Walker (Kelly Macdonald) takes her five adventurous children on holiday to the Lake District while her husband is working at sea. Staying with friends (Harry Enfield and Jessica Hynes), the four older children (teens Dane Hughes and Orla Hill and pre-teens Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen and Bobby McCulloch) borrow the sailboat Swallow and head off to make camp on an island in the lake. There they imagine a series of high adventures involving two local girls (Hannah Jayne Thorp and Seren Hawkes), who are playing as pirates in their boat Amazon. They imagine the girls' uncle (Rafe Spall) as the villainous Captain Flint, unaware that he's actually a double agent being chased by a pair of truly villainous Russian spies (Andrew Scott and Dan Skinner).
As the film goes along, this espionage subplot takes over, which might not have been a bad thing if the writer and director had been able to generate some proper thrills. But while these scenes are nicely played by the cast, the action beats have absolutely no tension to them. They feel only partially shot and then frantically edited together, leaving key moments muddled. The more experienced actors manage to inject plenty of humour, emotion and edginess to their scenes (Spall and Scott are particularly good, as always), but the children seem to have been given very little direction, never quite nailing their characters. Although youngsters Malleson-Allen and McCulloch manage to engage the audience with their cute, plucky personalities.
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In truth, Frankie's father is in Scotland, gravely ill. His life at sea was concocted by Frankie's mother, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer of Dirty Pretty Things), to keep the real, landlocked father out of their lives. We don't know much about Frankie's dad, only that he caused the boy's deafness and is so despicable that Lizzie, her mother, and Frankie raise stakes frequently to maintain their distance.
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