“Summerland” dazzles in the past more than the present

Summerland Summerland Feature Film Stills by Michael Wharley

Gemma Arterton is bristly and charming in this WWII-era melodrama, but it’s almost a little too weightless for its own good.

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Gemma Arterton feels like one of British film’s hidden treasures – an incandescent actress with incredible presence who nonetheless lacks the name value of your Keiras Knightley or Emilies Blunt. Still, she shines when you put her at the center of a historical melodrama; she’s one of the bright spots of the otherwise-spotty Vita & Virginia, and she capably leads the criminally-underseen Their Finest. Her latest, Summerland, is more proof-positive she thrives in these kinds of gentle, painterly, indefatigably British pictures — even when the film around her can’t quite match her level.

In first-time writer-director Jessica Swale‘s hands, she plays Alice Lamb, an irascible writer and academic living a hermit-like existence in 1940s Kent, at the height of the Second World War. When we first see her, she’s a cranky old woman in the ’70s played by Penelope Wilton, hammering away at a typewriter while proving her antipathy toward children (“You know how you can help the aged? You can bugger off!”).

Then Swale takes us back to the ’40s, where Arterton shares Wilton’s furrowed brow, as grumpy towards kids as ever. So naturally, Lamb is tasked with caring for one — a gentle, sensitive war evacuee named Frankie (Lucas Bond). It’s an arrangement she’s not happy with (much less because she doesn’t remember volunteering for it), but ‘ere long grows accustomed to — particularly since Frankie is such good, giving company, asking her about her academic thesis on Morgan Le Fey and the floating islands of Fata Morgana.

Summerland
Summerland Feature Film Stills by Michael Wharley

What’s more, the two of them share traumas of missing loved ones: For Frankie, it’s his dad, an RAF pilot whom he idolizes, making wooden model planes in his honor. For Lamb, as flashbacks inform us, it’s the long-lost romance she had with a woman in the 1920s named Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), whose romance you know is doomed from the start, and not just because of the homophobia of early 20th-century England. It’s all very Wordsworth, but Arterton and Bond share an impossible chemistry that make the fundamentals work.

It’s a shame, then, that the past of Summerland‘s characters threaten to sabotage the film’s present that we’re meant to be so invested in. Granted, the Alice we know for much of the film is meant to be dour, de-glammed and short-tempered because of the light and vibrancy she lost with Vera. But when the flashbacks, so full of light and flash thanks to the flapper setting and Mbatha-Raw’s impossible charisma with Arterton, make us miss their presence as much as ’40s Alice does, it leaves the rest of the film feeling a bit hollow.

And it’s not like the film isn’t aiming for pleasantness; despite the wartime setting, much of the Kent we see outside Alice’s cynicism is filled with childlike whimsy and friendly elders (Dixie Egerickx as Frankie’s imaginative pal Edie and Tom Courtenay as the ever-caring headmaster of the village). Laurie Rose’s cinematography lingers lovingly over the White Cliffs of Dover, tall grass swaying in the wind, and bountiful English clouds. (Quarantine’s got me really missing the outdoors.) As a work of stately English serenity, there’s a lot to admire.

[I]f you cut away the rotten bits, what’s left is a lovely little English drama with modest aspirations and little stakes.

But then we get down to the business of what exactly Alice is going to do with Frankie, and a mind-bogglingly ridiculous twist slams the past and the present together in a way that beggars belief. It’s a painfully novelistic move that Swale shoots for, one which betrays the gentle simplicity of the first hour for overwrought soap opera shenanigans that virtually undercut everything that’s come before. Before long, you’ve got races to the train, shouted confessions, and Volker Bertelmann’s sweeping score shoving a whole lot of emotions in your face. Arterton and the cast do yeoman’s work to sell it, but Summerland seems to want to escape the placidity that worked so well for it thus far.

Despite this, Summerland‘s overarching gentleness, and the winsome performances of its cast, especially Arterton, make it a pleasant experience on the whole. It absolutely shoots itself in the foot in that back half, but if you cut away the rotten bits, what’s left is a lovely little English drama with modest aspirations and little stakes. Sometimes, all you want is to lay down in the grass with a cup of tea and watch the waves crash on the cliffsides.

Summerland is currently streaming on digital platforms and VOD.

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