Directed by Jessica Swale.
Starring Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lucas Bond, Dixie Egerickx, Tom Courtenay and Penelope Wilton.
A reclusive writer in 1940s Kent delves back into her past when her emotional side is awakened by an evacuee boy forced into her care.
There’s nothing the British movie industry loves more than a cosy story set during the Second World War. If it has plummy-voiced Brits gabbling on about the Germans and anxiously hiding from air raids, it’s pretty much a dead cert for the big screen. Writer-director Jessica Swale’s Summerland fits squarely into this particular niche and, initially, is as agreeable as the sun-dappled coastline upon which it is set. Sadly, this is a film that nosedives into a maelstrom of chaos, melodrama and contrivance from which it cannot possibly emerge smelling of roses.
The movie opens in the 1970s, with curmudgeonly writer Alice Lamb (Penelope Wilton) looking wistfully out of her window at the White Cliffs of Dover. Three decades earlier, Alice (Gemma Arterton) is a recluse – Tom Courtenay’s school head calls her “the beast on the beach” – writing rather dry-sounding academic theses about folklore during the war. Evacuee child Frank (Lucas Bond) is forced upon her, despite her protestations. Initially cold towards the youngster, Alice softens and recalls her youthful romance with fellow student Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), as well as the circumstances that led to their separation.
Summerland is very much a game of two halves. The first is an enjoyably cuddly drama, in which Arterton’s spiky loner butts heads with Frank – the son of a fighter pilot who is full of optimism and becomes fascinated by the mythical concepts Alice researches. Most significantly, the two bond over the idea of the titular fantasia – a Pagan heaven that occasionally peeks through into the real world by virtue of phenomena such as floating islands. The antagonistic chemistry between Arterton and Bond is enjoyable, if a little too light and fluffy to ever leave a mark.
Little of that wit carries over to the flashback scenes in which Arterton’s bookish student falls for Mbatha-Raw’s more carefree Vera. Their scenes are too brief for the relationship to ever be believable and there’s an infuriating lack of passion between them – a far cry from the searing, heartfelt lesbian love story at the heart of this year’s masterful Portrait of a Lady on Fire, for example. Swale’s movie is infuriatingly safe in sketching its queer romance, with little sense of the inherent danger greeting two women in love in the middle of the 20th century. This was a time in which even a gay war hero could not escape prejudice.
Just after its halfway point, Summerland takes a turn for the absurd with a plot twist that doesn’t so much jump the shark as pole vault over the nearest passing humpback whale. It’s a flourish of soap opera melodrama that sits very awkwardly amid the relatively grounded emotions of the story and sends the entire movie hurtling into a world of screeching over-acting and improbable revelations. Swale’s script bids farewell to nuance, taking the talented ensemble of actors along with it.
From relatively safe foundations, Summerland completely loses sight of its appeal amid the weeds of overwrought plotting, squandering the undeniable talent of both Arterton and Mbatha-Raw. They’re two delightfully charming performers but, in this movie, they lack any sort of spark or energy. All of the seaside warmth in the world can’t rescue the movie from that.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.