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Gemma Arterton in Summerland.
Gemma Arterton in Summerland.
Photo: Michael Wharley/Flying Castles






4/5 Stars


As World War II rages, the smaller towns in England become a safe haven for those fleeing the blitz in London. One evacuee, a young boy named Frank, is placed in the care of Alice, a bitter, misanthropic spinster who wants nothing more than to be left alone. As their relationship deepens, memories of Alice's own past – and her one true love, Vera – come back to haunt her.


There is something of a twist at the beginning of the third act of Summerland that will elicit either groans of derision or warm acceptance (and slight shame that you never figured it out earlier) – and it's exactly that sort of Marmite reaction that applies to the film as a whole. You'll either go along with this warm-hearted but undeniably contrived, predictable and quaint little love story or you won't. I very much did as its gentle humour, beautiful scenery and unabashed sentimentality totally won me over in very little time, especially coming as it did in the middle of the most tumultuous year in recent history. Your mileage, however, may vary.

Written and directed by celebrated playwright Jessica Swale, in what is only her second feature film, Summerland is a story of contrasts – love and loss; rational scepticism and spirituality; idyllic small-town life in the middle of a raging war. But it is mostly, first and foremost, a love story between a closeted lesbian woman hardened by a life of disappointment and self-denial and the young, innocent and idealistic kid who suddenly finds himself in her care.

There are no surprises whatsoever to be had in how their relationship develops, any more than there's any real surprise in the film's big twist or in how the passionate love affair of Alice and Vera plays out in the past. That sense of familiarity is, again, only really a problem if you're not willing to go along with the comfortable, big-hearted sincerity that is the film's stock in trade.

If you do go along with it, though, the lack of originality and unpredictability is more than made up for by wonderful performances, some beautiful cinematography and some strong characterisation – not to mention a surprising amount of thematic depth that gives an otherwise rather breezy film extra weight.

The way it handles its "queer" components (sorry, I grew up when "queer" was a slur, so it's still hard for me to write it without those quotation marks) is refreshingly well done as well. It doesn't particularly try and apply 21st century moral norms to 1940s England, but it also doesn't shy away from the reality of what it meant to be gay back then. It's not exploitative or sensationalist about it, though, and it feels less like Swale is "pushing an agenda" than intricately and smartly weaving these themes into its characters and their relationships with one another.

And that's really the key to the film's success. The characters are really nicely written and expertly performed by a top-drawer cast. Alice's character arc and her relationship with young Frank, for example, may play out exactly as you expect but within that framework, there are some wonderful small touches that bring some extra dimensions to something that could have been as paper-thin as it is undeniably obvious. I especially love how even though Alice obviously softens towards Frank and life in general, she never entirely loses her cantankerous edge that is still there when we meet her in her older form in the present-day sequences that frame the film.

Gemma Arterton turns in an incredible performance as Alice, bringing plenty of subtlety to the role when needed but also relishing the chance to play her as a Class-A bitch. She is also impressively matched by young Lucas Bond as Frank, who reminds me an awful lot of Millie Bobby Brown to the point that I was genuinely shocked to learn that they're in no way related.

As for Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Vera, she may not have tons of screen time, but she makes the most of it. Though, between this and the San Junipero episode of Black Mirror, she is in danger of being typecast into brilliant lesbian love stories. The rest of the cast is filled up with a number of veteran British performers and they're all typically excellent, with Tom Courtney as the kind but oh so British school principal and Penelope Wilton as older Alice all but threatening to steal the show from these young upstarts.

So, yes, if all of this sounds a bit vomit-inducing to you, the film itself certainly won't change your mind. Otherwise, though, I could recommend spending some time in Summerland, enough as a funny, moving and huge-hearted escape from our current reality. It's really, genuinely, quite lovely.


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