- Emma Simmonds
- 27 July 2020
Female-focused wartime drama starring Gemma Arterton, combining interesting ideas with familiarity
World War II settings are so common in commercial British cinema they surely must play a substantial part in stoking our national obsession with the era. With its focus on folklore, the demonisation of rule-breaking women and forbidden love, Summerland at least comes at events from some interesting angles. It marks the directorial debut of playwright Jessica Swale (an Olivier award-winner for comedy Nell Gwynn – soon to be a film itself), who also pens the screenplay.
The title references the pagan heaven, a spiritual realm existing, mostly undetectably, down on Earth. Set in rural Kent, near Ramsgate, Summerland finds Gemma Arterton's Alice stubbornly established as the local pariah, and playing up to it. An academic specialising in the scientific interpretation of myths, she's wild of hair, crabby of temperament and thought of by children as a witch. Fiercely protective of her solitary, studious ways, Alice is dismayed when she's called upon to assist the war effort by providing shelter to an evacuee. The boy in question is Frank (Lucas Bond), a curious little chap who takes an irresistible interest in Alice's work, causing a fragile bond to develop between them. The film also flashes back to Alice's doomed love affair with Gugu Mbatha-Raw's glamorous Vera.
There are some unusual ideas as Summerland highlights a historical fear of non-conformist females but, by stretching itself too thin story and themes-wise, it leaves much of the material feeling underexplored. Cinematographer Laurie Rose (a regular collaborator with Ben Wheatley) does a good job tying its look to its subject matter, as the Kent coastline is rendered supernaturally dreamy but slightly starved of colour, fitting with Alice's pallid, myth-obsessed existence. Although the rousing, emotionally tumultuous conclusion feels overly contrived, it's hard not to be moved by the sincerity of the film's sentiment and the delicacy of its performances. Arterton is typically affecting as a woman ravaged by grief, disappointment and loneliness, and if the excellent Mbatha-Raw features more fleetingly she brings comparable sensitivity.
Finding small roles for acting treasures like Tom Courtenay and Penelope Wilton, there's much that is gentle and reassuringly familiar here (it's not unlike 2018's The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which also starred both, or indeed Arterton's own 2016 wartime effort Their Finest). It's a film that wants you to cling to it like a comfort blanket, and may find plenty of takers at this time.
In cinemas from Fri 31 Jul.