This this primarily World War II-set drama is mostly straightforward, but boasts memorable work from Gemma Arterton and a potent undercurrent of subversion.
Gemma Arterton's resume is filled with roles both forgettable and masterful, in small and blockbuster movies alike, and in intimate and overblown films, too. Her time as a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace sits alongside vampire feature Byzantium, underrated zombie flick The Girl with All the Gifts, romantic drama Vita & Virginia and the Adam Sandler-starring Murder Mystery, for instance. But when she's in a film that feels as if it has been built around her, either wholly or in part — see: The Disappearance of Alice Creed, Tamara Drewe and Their Finest — she rarely fails to impress. Summerland is the latest movie to boast one of her most memorable performances, and it's definitely better for it. Exploring an unexpected connection between a misanthropic writer and a young boy placed in her care, tackling multiple types of trauma, and espousing the enduring need for hope, this primarily World War II-set drama would've proven far more standard otherwise. It's still often a straightforward affair, but it also demonstrates that a feature can be neat, obvious, heartfelt and rivetingly acted all at once.
In the mid-70s, Alice Lamb (Penelope Wilton, Downton Abbey) taps away at her typewriter and scares away the children who come knocking at her door. Rewind to the 40s, and the younger Alice (Arterton) does much the same. She's been labelled a witch by the kids in her seaside village, and she's hardly happy when the pre-teen Frank (Lucas Bond, The Alienist: Angel of Darkness) arrives on her doorstep as part of a government program to evacuate the next generation from London. In fact, Alice demands that he be rehoused instead of interrupting her work; however, she's told that'll take a week. Moving to the big screen after stage success as a playwright and theatre director (and making short film Leading Lady Parts, also starring Arterton), debut feature filmmaker Jessica Swale penned the original script, so Summerland isn't based on an existing text or property — but everyone watching knows Alice and Frank have ample time to overcome their initial animosity, and that that'll end up being the case.
When it spins a story about a woman given a new lease on life via an unanticipated bond that's thrust upon her, Summerland rarely flirts with surprise, let alone delivers many. Alice specialises in investigating the myths and histories of mirage-like imagery, including visions of a castle in the sky not far from her own quaint cottage — and the curious Frank quickly embraces her field of expertise. It brightens up his own uncertain predicament, not just because Alice is so unwelcoming, but given that his father is a pilot in the thick of the action and his mother remains in the capital as it is under threat from bombing. Frank's interest also helps soften the cantankerous Alice's tough exterior, which is predictably the product of past woes. Again and again, Swale's screenplay makes obvious choices, and yet it also tells a resonant tale in the process. Other than Arterton's efforts, Summerland benefits from two specific aspects: the backstory behind Alice's demeanour, and the way it unpacks her outsider status.
Inescapably, Summerland also includes an almost-cringeworthy, far-too-convenient twist — but when it leaps back to the 20s, to Alice's immediate attraction to and subsequent time with Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Misbehaviour) during her university studies, it doesn't just add a love story to the narrative. In its flashbacks and the shadow they leave on Alice's WWII-era life, the movie also invests depth and emotion that isn't as strong otherwise, unleashes unexpected elements that aren't evident elsewhere, and offers a quiet yet potent undercurrent of subversion as well. Swale needn't stress the point, so she doesn't, but she lingers on moments between Arterton and Mbatha-Raw because they stand out. Period scenes of queer romance will do that in genres and tales that aren't known for them, after all. Before flitting backwards, viewers have already seen that Alice lives alone prior to Frank coming along, so Summerland instantly delves into complex territory. The audience is well aware that Swale has reshaped and recontextualised a largely cookie-cutter narrative, and they're just as cognisant of the hurdles Alice and Vera faced in having any hope of enjoying a happy ending. Also apparent: why Alice has long chosen to cultivate a peppery reputation, and to close herself off to her fellow townsfolk.
This is a warm movie with an array of hope, though. Summerland never lets Frank lose sight of it, or allows the embers of hope for a different future to die within Alice. Arterton is particularly compelling when Alice lays bare her heartbreak, even if that's clearly one of the character's much-needed steps on the path to moving forward — and, because it's paired with such a lived-in performance, Alice is able to navigate an easy-to-foresee emotional journey and still staunchly feel like her own person at the same time. There's no avoiding the air of familiarity that hovers over Summerland, of course. It's unshakeable in most of its storyline, its assortment of quirky bit players (including villagers portrayed by King of Thieves' Tom Courtenay and The Secret Garden's Dixie Egerickx) and its postcard-perfect imagery, especially. That said, Swale mostly manages to fly through much-recognised territory, find ways to dive deeper and occasionally transcend a template, and get viewers to share the heartache Alice wears on her sleeves and the desires she has buried inside — with Arterton so crucial to making that happen, it's hard to imagine the film without her.
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