Summerland, despite the picturesque coastal town setting and playful demeanour is a war film but it uses its World War 2 setting and tale of loss to instead tell a story about emotional recovery and faith. This tale of patchwork family is told with such care and grace that a simple story about misunderstood people, the stories worth telling and the less talked about effects of war turns into a classic British drama about mothers and sons and the power loss has to bring people together in a meaningful way.
Told in flashback, Summerland follows reclusive writer Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton/Penelope Wilton) who during the war was entrusted to look after Frank (Lucas Bond), a displaced refugee from London, where the Blitz was in full effect. Sent away by his mother, Alice has no time or place for a child in her reclusive lifestyle but is stuck with him until other arrangements can be made. However Frank’s willingness to question the world around him as well as Alice herself forces her to look back on what forced her to hide out in this quiet place, silently judged by the people around her.
While most of Summerland is a conventional feel good film, a warm cup of British sugar that sometimes indulges in a little too much sweetness, writer and director Jessica Swale’s film is a charming and insulated story told in isolation, a tale of false assumptions, either about Alice’s past relationship with Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) or how Alice sees belief as some kind of childlike ideal, something to be stripped from someone for a harsh dose of reality. Swale manages to show that understanding is just a matter of shifting perspective and the real goal here is acceptance of others.
While guilty of some wish fulfillment with an ending that threatens to unravel the whole experience, not only because it adds little to this insulated unconditional love story but because it serves no purpose outside being mindlessly sentimental. If it wasn’t for a wonderfully acerbic and physically proud performance by Arterton, this might feel all to picturesque, a perfect story in a time of strife. Instead Alice is a physically damaging presence, one whose past mistakes play like a dark cloud, one that alludes but never mentions the war just beyond the coastline Alice and Frank cling to for comfort.
However much of Summerland’s power, outside of a career high for Arterton and an inquisitive turn by Bond, lies in its location. The English countryside hides many secrets for Alice and Frank as they seek to find answers together and Swale uses the quiet power of introspection and a slowly lilting but effective score by Volker Bertelmann to ensure that despite the setting, the inherent darkness looming on the horizon and Alice’s own self sabotage, this is still a joyful picture and a fresh take on the cost of surviving trauma.
Although a late story shift over stuffs events, turning Alice’s story into one of coincidences and happenstance instead of something natural, it is difficult to set aside the undeniable lightness of a simplistic but nurturing narrative. The quiet way it conveys small moments or the excellent cinematography by Laurie Rose that makes you question what you believe through simple, well chosen shots and locations, Summerland feels less like a war film and more one about coming back from one.
While Swale never really discusses the village around Alice and Frank’s tale and the effect of this missed community, instead chosing to play to this idea through the solitary figure of the local official Mr Sullivan (a woefully underused Tom Courtenay) and Frank’s friendship with local girl Edie (Dixie Egerickx), the latter of whom becomes a plot device towards the end of the film with Swale seeming to forget that initially she was a person, not a convienient cause of conflict. It feels like one of the films most noticable stumbling points and it makes the world outside of Alice and Frank’s little cottage seem small in comparison.
But for all the little blemishes around the outside, Alice and Frank’s tale is life affirming in all the right ways and Arterton and Bond make a dynamic pairing well worth spending the time watching. While the whole affair might be a tad unbelievable, this is a story about belief, so really, its up to you to decide what is and isn’t believable.