Published Aug 21, 2020It's the 1970s. An elderly woman sits at her desk, clacking away on her typewriter. She's a reclusive writer, like many in history, and this hooks you in from the very start thanks to a fiery introduction by actor Penelope Wilton, whose disdain for children is a big mood. Flashback to World War 2 and Gemma Arterton's iteration of the character, Alice Lamb, is very much the same. Secluded in her seaside cottage, she's fiercely independent — a pre-Miss Honey cottagecore lesbian spinster who's a cat away from stereotype (which she also acknowledges). She's ostracized by many of the townsfolk, but that doesn't stop her from storming through town like a hurricane, leaving frightened children in her wake. This hilariously takes a turn when she – against her will, she emphasizes – becomes the guardian of a young boy named Frank (Lucas Bond), an evacuee from London.
British playwright, theatre director, and screenwriter Jessica Swale – who blessed us with the short film Leading Lady Parts – marks her feature film debut with Summerland. It's perhaps the feel-good film of the year, as it explores many things: imagination, motherhood, the heartbreak of war and lost love, and the touching story of how this young boy changes Alice's life.
The film's gorgeous coastal English setting is full of entertaining, yet ignorant, townsfolk, who are a constant annoyance to Alice. Especially the children, who terrorize her and believe her to be a witch or a Nazi spy. But to Alice's surprise, Frank is unlike any of the other children; his curiosity and acceptance awaken something in her that was lost. And as their relationship grows, the film in turn becomes one of magic and adventure, as Frank helps Alice work on her thesis: the science behind myths and the root of their tales, with a focus on floating islands. Folklore is all the rage right now (thank you, Taylor Swift) so her cottage — all adorned with maps, photographs, and the exploration of the Theosophical heaven — adds a really interesting aspect to a narrative that's already engaging thanks to Frank and Alice's relationship.
As she begins to care for him, as they begin to open up to each other, this relationship transforms Alice, bringing happiness and love back to her life which was lost. Thanks to him, she begins to reflect on a great love she had 20 years prior. Much of the promotion and talk surrounding the film has been about the romance between Alice and Gugu Mbatha-Raw's, Vera. This romance is the thread that ties everything together, but it's not the film's sole focus, which will be disappointing for some. And while Mbatha-Raw doesn't have as much to do, she makes the most of her time on screen and her scenes with Arterton are magical. She's charming and brings out a side to Alice that's rarely seen in the same woman 20 years later: someone much more joyful, in love, and vigorous in youth. As said, they don't explore their relationship as much as some might hope, but Summerland still shows the complexities of same-sex love during the period.
Arterton has wonderful chemistry with the playful Mbatha-Raw, and the same can be said for her chemistry with Bond. One of the best child actors in recent years, he's spirited and wise beyond his years. He plays a character with emotional depth, which isn't often afforded to children's roles. Frank's innocence helps break Alice down, which in turn results in Arterton's best performance to date – a moving and emotional one. She's also hilarious without even really trying to be. Alice has no sense of humour, and speaks matter-of-factly, but it makes everything she does and says that much funnier. And one can't neglect to mention the collection of knits she wears courtesy of the excellent costume design on display from Claire Finlay-Thompson. Along with its setting and performances, the film's score by Volker Bertelmann and cinematography by Laurie Rose perfectly envelop the film in wonder, magic, and feel-good energy.
"I want to make a film that people can enjoy. I wanted to write a film which had an important message about open-mindedness and the way that innocence and truthfulness and simplicity can actually uncomplicate all of our biases and prejudices," Swale explains in the film's press notes, and she certainly achieves her goal. Summerland offers engaging storytelling with the perfect splash of melodrama. It's a film that's both heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time, with a spectacular last half, followed by a most beautiful ending. A film that embraces child-like imagination and a pure way of looking at the world. A tale of hope, acceptance, and finding love that's much needed. (levelFILM)