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Film Review: Despite Some Narrative Missteps, “Summerland” Warms the Heart

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | July 31st, 2020

Film poster: “Summerland”

Summerland (Jessica Swale, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.

Noted British playwright Jessica Swale makes her film directorial debut with Summerland, for which she also wrote the script. Starring Gemma Arterton (Their Finest) as Alice Lamb, a heartbroken, cantankerous writer living an isolated life in a village located next to England’s White Cliffs of Dover, the movie takes place mostly in the days of the London Blitz of World War II. Though sometimes too narratively overdetermined for its own cinematic good, Summerland nevertheless delivers some moving moments of drama interspersed with lighter scenes of gentle joy. Anchored by Arterton’s brilliant central performance, it survives its occasional plot pitfalls to emerge victorious from the ashes of doubt as a mostly lovely work of art.

When first we meet Ms. Lamb, it is 1975, though the house where she sits, manically typing, is the same one where we will shall presently find her, back in the 1940s. We get a taste of her character when she tells two children who knock on her door to “bugger off,” though as it will turn out, she has hidden depths of feeling the story will later reveal. In fact, this is a bit of misdirection, implying a character who, at this point in her life, based on the events we are about witness, is probably far nicer than she appears here. Played at this point by Isobel Wilton (Downton Abbey), she is a classic spinster out of the worst misogynistic stereotypes.

Penelope Wilton as “1975 Alice” in Jessica Swale’s SUMMERLAND. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

But then we flash back to her younger self, Arterton now joining us. Seen by her neighbors as a nasty piece of work, she delights in scandalizing the town through antisocial behavior. It therefore comes as a shock to her when she has somehow been volunteered to foster an evacuee child from London, part of a group sent away from the capital to avoid the bombs. Her charge is Frank, a soulful lad whose father is a pilot and whose mother works for a government ministry. With her academic work cataloguing local folklore legends (whence the movie’s title comes) always on her mind, Alice wants nothing to do with him, but finally acquiesces to the pressure of the community, though only for a week until a more willing home can be found.

In a film like this, set up as it is with a crank protagonist, it is a given that the boy will soon begin to melt the heart of the nasty witch (as the locals call her). Still, that preordained conclusion aside, the joy is in the specificity of how that thaw proceeds, as well as in the unexpected details of Alice’s life, told through flashbacks that begin shortly after Frank arrives, which reveal her own romantic history and more. Played by Lucas Bond (Slumber), Frank is a more than worthy vehicle for Alice’s awakening catharsis, sweet and sensitive in ways that make it very difficult for her to hate him, try as she might. The two play beautifully off each other, and their scenes prove quite affecting.

Gemma Arterton as “Alice” and Lucas Bond as “Frank” in in Jessica Swale’s SUMMERLAND. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

The rest of the ensemble is equally compelling, especially Tom Courtenay (45 Years), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Fast Color) and Dixie Egerickx (The Secret Garden), who plays Edie, a friend Frank makes at his new school. Despite the wartime, tragic setting, the warmth of human kindness, however repressed, pervades every frame, helped immensely by the gorgeous cinematography (itself assisted by the natural wonder of the seaside). All of this carries us through the weaknesses and coincidences of the screenplay towards the heartfelt conclusion. Sentimental and imperfect as it may be, Summerland nevertheless earns its emotional release. Let the tears flow.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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