Jessica Swale’s Summerland is a star-powered, quintessentially British film, filled with terrific performances, beautiful countryside, heart-tugging moments, and a warm glow; it’s a perfect, rainy Sunday afternoon movie with a touching love story woven throughout.
After a prelude in the 70s, we are taken back to rural England during World War II where budding writer Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton) lives alone. She is distrusted by the locals, often for good reason as she takes misanthropic glee in annoying others, while the children think she’s a witch. Her routines are thrown aside when an uninvited evacuee from London, a young boy named Frank (Lucas Bond), is delivered to her doorstep. Reluctantly, she lets him stay for a week until the authorities can find a more suitable home for him.
For the first half of its running time Summerland is a fairly traditional ‘odd-couple’ set up, with the effervescent Frank gradually breaking down cranky Alice’s walls. Swale pieces together Alice’s backstory at a gentle pace revealing her past joys and love with the glamorous Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). The film begins to up the emotional stakes in its second half with predictably tear-jerking results (I don’t say this as a critique, I could see the emotional punches coming and happily walked headlong into them).
In some ways, it’s a cinematic-sister to Francis Lee’s far frostier Ammonite. Set a century apart, both feature seemingly “difficult” women in scientific pursuits, shunned by society, and finding unexpected love. But Summerland is the gentler, more easy-going sibling. Alice is coded “unlikable”, but we like her anyway.
Swale has chosen two actresses she knows and trusts in Arterton and Mbatha-Raw (both starred in her hit play Nell Gwynn) and that faith pays off. Arterton continues to prove she is among Britain’s best with a layered performance. The camera adores Mbatha-Raw, she literally radiates in every frame in her smaller role, while Lucas Bond brings a wounded, but irrepressible energy to Frank.
Summerland isn’t breaking new ground on any level, but it tells its story with confidence. If you’re looking for a safe bet among the sea of film festival offerings, this is your film.
By James Kleinmann
Summerland plays in cinemas as part of Queer Screen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival on Saturday Feb 27 and Wednesday March 3. To book tickets, head to the Queer Screen website.