“Summerland” is a period piece that is exactly as pleasant as it looks and sounds. But by injecting a rather traditional and sentimental narrative with a more contemporary attitude, and through Gemma Arterton’s winning performance, writer and director Jessica Swale’s debut feature is a sumptuous treat.
Set during World War II, “Summerland” stars Arterton as Alice Lamb, a reclusive writer who lives by the sea in a small town in the English country. Alice does not get along with the townsfolk, does not participate in the community, and because her writing deals with explorations of folklore, many of the local children are convinced she is a witch. So when a woman shows up at her door one day to inform Alice that she is to care for Frank (Lucas Bond), a young boy whose parents sent him away from London during the Blitz for his safety, Alice is more than reluctant. But as she spends more time with Frank, Alice becomes impressed with his intelligence, and begins reliving memories of her lost love, Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
English period dramas are a very specific subgenre that is popular all over the world for the sense of comfort they provide. The combination of lush sets and costumes; the blend of drama, humor, intrigue, and romance; the fact that they are set in a time far enough from our own that they almost feel like they exist in another world; all of these are reasons why so many of us flock to the theater for the latest Jane Austen adaptation, or tune in to Masterpiece Theatre every Sunday evening. “Summerland” contains all of that while also existing as an original piece from a writer and director who it appears will be worth looking out for. It’s funny. It’s dramatic. It’s sweet, although its over-eagerness to embrace sentimentality is perhaps its most off-putting feature. It’s predictable, although it has a third act twist that is initially jarring but makes sense in the grander scheme of the story. It was filmed in picturesque East Sussex, where everything is brimming with charm—the quaint town, Alice’s cozy home, the seaside vistas. All of those things put together result in a movie that is exactly the sort of breezy escape we need right now, even if the work doesn’t elevate itself beyond that.
But that doesn’t mean that Swale doesn’t accomplish some really wonderful and unique things in “Summerland.” Swale explores the film’s themes through concepts such as fata morgana (mirages seen just above the horizon) and Summerland (the pagans’ idea of the afterlife). Later in the film, she uses the story’s idyllic setting as a way to briefly but effectively portray the horrors of war when we go to London in the midst of an air raid. Where Alice lives, the war is so far away, it’s easy to not think twice about it until you find yourself in it. It’s a feeling similar to what I think a lot of people are experiencing in the middle of this pandemic currently; it can be hard to believe it is happening or that it is serious until it directly affects you.
Another wonderful thing about “Summerland” is its portrayal of the lesbian romance between Alice and Vera, which mainly unfolds via Alice’s flashbacks throughout the film. Rather than following a narrative where we see opposition to their relationship, Swale gives us scenes of love and acceptance that aren’t often seen in period pieces (or even in many mainstream contemporary works, for that matter).
So much of this movie works too because Arterton’s performance is just so good. We can get a sense of what Alice is like just by the way Arterton carries herself, bent over a typewriter, cigarette dangling carelessly from her mouth. She’s so cold and hard at the start of the film, but she makes Alice’s inevitable warmth and caring nature come out in a believable way. Hair, makeup, and costuming also all come together to give Alice a rather carefree appearance in contrast to how she appears in flashbacks with Vera. In happier times, she did her hair, dressed up, and wore makeup; now, her long hair is unkempt, she doesn’t wear makeup, and she doesn’t have any reason to dress up. Mbatha-Raw imbues Vera with a dose of practicality and elegance that Alice doesn’t quite have a handle on, and they balance each other out beautifully. Bond also turns in an outstanding performance that is more layered than the clichéd precocious kid, and he holds his own with Arterton in every scene. The cast also features Tom Courtenay, who play the school’s befuddled principal Mr. Sullivan, and Penelope Wilton, who plays older Alice in a couple scenes that bookend the narrative. Dixie Egerickx is also wonderful as Edie, a girl Frank befriends at school over their mutual family issues.
As always, it’s great to see women working behind and in front of the camera on a project, and with this solid debut feature Swale proves that she is one filmmaker to watch. “Summerland” contains a couple of plot threads that don’t feel fully resolved at the end of the movie, the story, despite a few surprises, is largely predictable, and it’s often overly sentimental. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is a delightful one, and I’m pretty sure that’s the feeling most people who decide to watch this movie will be chasing.
“Summerland” will be playing in select theaters and be available to watch on demand on all platforms on Friday, July 31. Runtime: 99 minutes. Rated PG. 4 out of 5 stars.
Media review link courtesy IFC Films.