Director: Jessica Swale
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Lucas Bond, Dixie Egerickx
Runtime: 1 hr 39 mins
Rating: R21 (Some Homosexual Content)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 19 November 2020
Synopsis: SUMMERLAND follows the story of fiercely independent folklore investigator, Alice (Gemma Arterton, HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS) who secludes herself in her clifftop study, debunking myths using science to disprove the existence of magic. Consumed by her work, but also profoundly lonely, she is haunted by a love affair from her past. When spirited young Frank (Lucas Bond), an evacuee from the London Blitz, is dumped into her irritable care, his innocence and curiosity awaken Alice’s deeply buried emotions. Bravely embracing life’s miraculous unpredictability, Alice learns that wounds may be healed, second chances do occur, and that, just perhaps - magic really does exist.
‘Summerland’ rests entirely on the shoulders of its lead actress Gemma Arterton, and as long as you don’t mind an all-too-neat British picture, you’ll find playwright-turned-filmmaker Jessica Swale’s debut an amiably sentimental World War II drama.
Arterton plays the cantankerous scholar Alice Lamb, who lives in a picturesque cottage on the Kent coast as she writes about myths and legends, including the one from which the movie draws its title. Alice makes no attempt to hide her disdain of children in general or the other locals from the country village where she goes to for her groceries, and in turn, she is both greeted with disapproval as she makes her way around the village or worse called a “witch”.
As fate would have it, Alice is compelled to billet an adolescent boy named Frank (Lucas Bond) who has been evacuated from London; and though she doesn’t want him, Alice takes him in on account that she would be relieved of him in a week’s time. Of course, there is much more to that than meets the eye, which is the subject of the latter half of the film.
But the inevitable bond which forms between Alice and Frank is the focus of the first half, one which brings on flashbacks to an inter-racial, same-sex relationship between Alice and Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) many years back. Those hoping for a more passionate account of the latter will no doubt be disappointed – not only is Raw woefully underused here, Alice’s ill-fated romance with Vera is handled in a surprisingly timid fashion.
What is clearer and more compelling though is the surrogate maternal bonding that occurs amidst Alice’s reintegration into the community, which happens in parallel with Frank’s budding friendship with the offbeat tomboy Edie (Dixie Egerickx). These scenes unfold with their own sense of pace and rhythm, and as prettified as it may be, there is an undeniable appeal to the bucolic portrait of rural England in wartime.
Swale though goes heavy on the plotting in the third act, throwing in tragedy, revelation, a runway attempt and even a bombing as secrets are unearthed and pasts are confronted. It is more than a little too convenient to be convincing, but as we said from the beginning, Arterton holds it all together with a perfectly nuanced turn balanced between vulnerability and resilience. Thanks to her grounded performance, the movie never quite becomes too cloying for comfort, even as it is ultimately too artificial to be historically plausible.
Credit though must be given to DP Laurie Rose, whose lush cinematography bathes the movie in seablown watercolours and makes it look as pretty as you can imagine. Indeed, if it isn’t yet obvious, ‘Summerland’ is intended to be heartwarming and soothing, the sort of British drama which brims with genteel sentiment; and don’t get us wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with such a picture, not least in these trying times.
Like its title therefore, ‘Summerland’ comes off less gritty than airy-fairy, but as long as you know you’re going into a somewhat soapy war drama, you probably won’t mind the ride. Arterton is wonderful in the movie, which is enough for you to overlook the cliches and contrivances that threaten to undermine its plotting. Without being a fairy tale, ‘Summerland’ tries to come as close as it can, and we suspect some won’t mind its sweet picture-book charms.
(True to its title, 'Summerland' is a fairytale-like WWII drama bathed in genteel sentiment that rests squarely on the shoulders of its lead star Gemma Arterton)
Review by Gabriel Chong