Film Review: Summerland
Director: Jessica Swale
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Courtenay, Penelope Wilton, Lucas Bond, Dixie Egerickx, Amanda Root
Running Time: 99
Australian Distributor: Icon Films
“Summerland” begins like it’s going to be one thing, and then becomes something different. When it does that, my entire outlook on the film shifted. What started out as something of a familiar “odd couple” premise turns into an emotional story of what it means to become a parent, and how to see yourself as responsible for other people’s well-being.
We first encounter our protagonist, Alice Lamb, at some point in the 1970s. Played by Penelope Wilton, she tells a pair of kids to bugger off before we’re taken back to WWII era rural England, where Alice is now portrayed by Gemma Arterton, but just as grouchy. A clumsily edited montage details her morning trip to her village, where she offends several locals and is mocked by children before returning to her secluded home where she spends her days alone studying the origins of folklore.
Alice’s routine is disturbed by the arrival of a London evacuee, a young boy named Frank (Lucas Bond), who has been entrusted into her care (she missed the letter notifying her of this inconvenience because her letterbox had been clogged by kids who filled it with dirt). Upon protesting, Alice is told that she must look after the boy for at least a week before she can pawn him off on some more accommodating household. While the boy’s presence initially disturbs Alice, it’s no surprise that she comes to warm to him. The two bond over folklore, and through Frank’s wide-eyed sense of wonder, she begins to see the stories she studies in a new light, one not so grounded in rationale.
One of the highlights of the film is a subplot involving Alice’s long-lost love, Vera (an underused Gugu Mbatha-Raw). There is a revelation that many won’t see coming that is well done and timely, but you have to give yourself over to its absurdity. Some could argue it may be so far out left field it’s ill-advised but gives the story added heft and context that would be slightly stale otherwise.
It’s clear the two lived together. Gemma Arterton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are so good at what they do, the emotional content of their love is clear. Gemma Arterton, in particular, is brilliant at being gobsmacked by her feelings for Vera. Years later during the war, she still grieves over losing Vera as she recalls their time together.
The main reason to see the film is for Gemma Arterton, who finally has found a film role that utilises her talents. She plays a woman who is bitter, cranky, driven, brilliant, and resentful that is not at all likeable because of a past she can’t let go of—which is refreshing. She is perceived as an outcast by some, accepted by others, which back then was an excuse to harbour resentment against a strong, independent woman.
Director Jessica Swale explores a few themes, but she’s primarily concerned with Alice’s experiences, leaving little room for anything else. Alice is the only character with depth. The ancillary characters round out the main story, but none of them truly live and breathe. We barely scratch the surface of this complex world.
While the theme of Swale’s choosing is worthwhile, the lack of attention to the other details is a little distracting. Rather than serving as a thematic bookend to Alice, Frank ends up as a crutch for her growth.
The result is still a pleasant film about love and friendship that has enough appeal to thaw the coldest hearts.
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