Swallows And Amazons (2016)

Director: Philippa Lowthorpe (2016) BBFC cert: PG

There’s a steady hand on the tiller of this handsomely crafted old fashioned family adventure.

It’s a sincere adaption of Arthur Ransome’s classic childrens book, though the liberties it takes with the plot don’t hold much water.

Setting out a steady pace, the sailing sequences are impressively staged. It paints a picture of privileged England at play in a gorgeous rural setting.

It’s 1935 and in the looming shadow of the Second World War, Mrs. Walker takes her baby and four children to the Lake District farmhouse for the summer.

Kelly McDonald plays mother to young actors Dane Hughes, Orla Hill, Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen and Bobby McCulloch. They are are an enthusiastic, fresh faced, well scrubbed bunch who seem to be sporting a vintage nautical range from the Boden catalogue.

The four children embark in their small boat, the Swallow, and head off to Undiscovered Island to camp for a few days.

Once there they feud with the children of another boat, the Amazon. Sporting home-made masks and pirate costumes, the bickering sisters also have a claim to the island. But they join forces when the Amazon’s mysterious uncle is kidnapped.

Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen as the younger sister Tatty is the stand out performer. Her name was changed from the novel’s Titty, to prevent titters.

Rafe Spall and Andrew Scott are unfairly given top billing above the kids. In a silly espionage plot not in the novel, they play a pair of spies engaging in a game of cat and mouse about the lake.

Jessica Hynes and Harry Enfield gently spar as Mr and Mrs Jackson, the bucolic owners of the Walker’s holiday farmhouse.

The orchestral soundtrack enforces a bracing tone of jolly derring do, soaring with as many peaks as offered by the glorious countryside.

There’s a refreshing absence of CGI and an empahsis on outdoor activity as the kids learn how to make fire and pitch a tent. They also swim, fish and star gaze.

Swallows And Amazons is a pleasant enough time spent messing about on the water. And if it encourages kids to aspire to technology free activities, then it’s all the more welcome for that.

@ChrisHunneysett

X+Y

Director: Morgan Matthews (2015)

An autistic teenage maths prodigy seeks a formula for love in this humorous, gently uplifting and supremely moving British drama.

While exploring the delicate relationship between Nathan (Asa Butterfield) and his mother Julie (Sally Hawkins), the plot follows the template of an underdog sports movie, based on the world of international competitive maths.

The story was inspired by the director’s own BAFTA nominated documentary ‘Beautiful Young Minds‘ featuring real maths competitors. Here he makes sure the maths is always interesting and understandable, keeping a firm grip on tone by adding as much humour as possible so scenes are never maudlin.

Cinematographer Danny Cohen  harks back to his work on Dead man’s Shoes and This is England, offering the film low-key realism and economically communicating Nathan’s complicated world view.

Nathan suffers from autistim and synthesia; though highly gifted at maths he is socially awkward and sensitive to changes in light and colour. He must have his toast divided into geometrically exact slices and food such as prawns served in prime number portions.

He is struggling to come to terms with his father’s death in a car crash. In flashback we see the close connection he shared with his father Michael (Martin McCann).

This loss is accentuating Nathan’s condition and isolating his mother. She is barely coping with life and her blunt speaking son has no idea how hurtful his words frequently are.

Although his condition leads to small domestic accidents such as a broken window and a flooded kitchen, Nathan finds beauty and peace in the perfection of maths and its practical application such as the geometric shapes in bridge underpasses.

Through school Nathan is introduced to scruffy, swearing teacher Mr Humphreys (Rafe Spall). Himself a former maths prodigy, he now suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, depression and loneliness.

As Humphreys tutors Nathan a bond develops and the teen qualifies for a trial for the International Maths Olympiad UK team.

Nathan is flown to Taiwan by UK team leader Richard (Eddie Marsan) with sixteen extremely intelligent maths students. It’s the first time Nathan is painfully average.

They meet young competitors from different countries and all are under pressure. Refreshingly the film doesn’t pander to the audience by providing subtitles for the Chinese speakers – angry is angry regardless of the language.

Nathan’s shy charm unexpectedly leads him to being at the sharp end of a love triangle between fellow students Rebecca (Alexa Davies) and as Zhang Mei (Jo Yang).

Along the way there’s self-harm, accusations of nepotism and a dash to the station in rom-com style.

Only the best six students will be chosen to represent the UK at the Olympiad to be held at Cambridge University – as we’re only really introduced to half a dozen of the students, it’s not hard to work out who’ll survive the cut.

But the lack of tension is not important as the film is more interested in character than narrative. The real pleasure lies in this quality cast enjoying their acting and creating characters we care about.

Butterfield is the pick of a winning young cast whose quietly expressive performance carries the film with open-faced innocence. Marsan offers the closest anyone comes to grandstanding but always to serve the needs of the film. His upbeat performance is calculated to provide balance through optimism, comedy and tempo.

Spall is given the most choice lines and in his most affecting performance to date delivers them deadpan to great comic effect. Hawkins is as wonderful as ever, she plays Julie with brittle finesse and is the maternal soul the story coalesces around.