In a seaside cottage in 1975 Alice Lamb (Penelope Wilton) hunches over a typewriter and is disturbed by a knock at the door. Two children are asking for donations for the elderly. Alice unceremoniously dispatches them by telling them the best way they can help the elderly is to “Bugger off!” Flashback to the 1940s war period and we see Alice again typing in the same room. This time she is played by Gemma Arterton (who will carry through the character for most of the film) and she too is disturbed by neighbourhood children who call her a witch and push stones, dirt, and sticks through her letterbox. Alice is not a character who embraces the spirit of community service or neighbourliness. Instead she is a solitary writer who works on academic texts about folklore and myth, and her insistence to stay away from the general population of the small coastal community has led her to be almost universally disliked and distrusted by the locals.
It’s a surprise then when London wartime evacuee Frank (Lucas Bond) lands on her doorstep. Alice has made it clear that she has no time for, nor interest in, children and does all she can to make sure Frank isn’t her responsibility. However, due to wartime billeting being at a crisis point she will have to take on Frank for at least a week before he can be transferred to another home and it is during this period something magical happens; Alice begins to let her guard down and starts to truly care for the sweet natured Frank.
I use the term magical somewhat deliberately because Summerland is suffused with a magical sensibility. Some of the magic is written into the script in the form of Alice’s work tracking sightings of impossible islands in the sky (the Fata Morgana or the pagan heaven Summerland from the title). Other instances of magic come from the trope of the curmudgeon who finds themselves transformed by the innocence of childhood – a theme that can be found in numerous fairy and folk tales such as Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant. There is also within the plot a deus-ex-machina that allows for Alice’s greatest wish to eventually come true. Some of the magic works to charm, while in other areas it signals a clumsiness on the part of the script that pushes too hard for a rather pat happy ending. For some viewers this may rankle, but for others the overall charisma of the film will win over scepticism.
Alice’s transformation from loner to concerned guardian is incremental and aided by the wonderfully gentle and humorous Frank. Although the story is about Alice’s growth it is Frank that makes it possible. Alone for many years after being disappointed in love when she was a student by the beautiful Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Alice has cultivated her solitary existence. Living outside convention as an academic and lesbian, Alice has let loneliness and bitterness seep into her being. It is no small miracle then when Frank arrives and is the first person she allows anywhere close to her. In a particularly touching scene Alice reveals that the person she loved was a woman and Frank immediately accepts that there is nothing wrong with loving someone of the same gender. One gets the sense that this is the first time anyone has truly accepted Alice for who she is since she first found Vera years ago.
Summerland isn’t a film that relies on dramatics. The war exists mostly in the background. Frank’s father is a fighter pilot, and his mother works for the ministry, yet Kent is relatively untouched by the horrors that the rest of the world are facing at the time. An ill-judged decision by Alice to hide the fact that Frank’s father has been killed when an aircraft carrier is sunk leads to a the most dramatic scene in the film as Frank takes himself to London to find his mother only to be confronted with the devastation of the London bombings having destroyed his family home. As Alice races to find her ward the immediacy of the dangers of the war are made manifest. Perhaps one of the least successful parts of writer/director Jessica Swale’s work is that war seems too far away for most of the film. It becomes easy to be enchanted by the impressive Dover coastline and peace filled village and to forget the horrors that lurk just under the surface of such a tranquil existence.
Gemma Arterton, one of Britain’s finest actors, is given scope to fully invest herself in the character of Alice Lamb. Her performance is at turns funny and heartbreaking. Yet without the immensely well-crafted performance by the juvenile actor Lucas Bond the film would falter greatly. His innocence weaved with wisdom makes him the emotional locus of the work. Bond gels with all the characters around him including his school mate (and somewhat like Alice spikey and hard to like) Edie (Dixie Egerickx). Edie is won over by him almost immediately. Likewise the kind-hearted school master Mr Sullivan (played by the always wonderful Tom Courtenay) is charmed by Frank.
Sadly underused is Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Alice’s love interest Vera. The flash backs to their relationship are particularly anodyne in places. Swale seems reticent to fully flesh out their love as a great passion. The scenes of them together, although beautifully shot seem insipid and lacking the chemistry that would speak of a partnership that when ended would eventually lead Alice to such a solitary life.
Summerland falls into a category of British films that doesn’t quite satisfy on some levels yet has enough heart to be eminently watchable and warm. Some of the stumbles in the plotting may annoy but they are rarely enough to write the film off. It’s a sentimental piece and doesn’t shy away from that, in fact it leans in heavily to it, yet it is never mawkish. Jessica Swale has created an undeniably beautiful looking film but perhaps it is in places too ephemeral to really stick. Like the castles in the sky that Alice and Frank seek out, the film impresses and then evaporates. The film is slight in places where it requires dramatic resonance but if you’re looking for something that is sensitive and charming Summerland is ultimately the kind of gentle comfort film you may enjoy.
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