Summerland

 

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Gemma Arterton reminds us what a terrific actress she is in this heart-wrenching tale of the rebuttal of and need for motherhood.

   

Summerland

Tricks of the light: Gemma Arterton 

 

There’s no two ways about it: Alice Lamb is a curmudgeon. She is self-absorbed, rude and, on occasion, even cruel. She lives by herself in a picturesque cottage overlooking the sea and distances herself from the communal pulse of the village. Meanwhile, men are sacrificing their lives across the Channel and London is suffering the full force of the Luftwaffe. Yet all Alice (Gemma Arterton) seems to care about is completing her academic thesis. Then, out of the blue, she is entrusted with the care of a boy from London, who has been evacuated to escape the horrors of the Blitz. Alice makes it abundantly clear that the child is unwelcome, but, as everybody keeps telling her, “we all have to do our bit.” The latter, Frank (Lucas Bond), is no less welcome at the school in which he’s been placed, regarded by the other children as an outsider not to be trusted. The headmaster, a befuddled Tom Courtenay, tells Frank, “well, it could be worse.” To which the alienated lad asks, “how?” True, Frank has been ripped from the bosom of his family and is now in the care of a mad woman who patently doesn’t want him around. “Life is not kind,” Alice explains. “Your heart will break and your friends will die. What matters is how you deal with it.” Of course, time will prove that she is the true coward.

 

Summerland, marking the feature directorial debut of the playwright Jessica Swale, does not start promisingly. There’s the opening clatter of a typewriter recalling the opening of Atonement and then, with its wartime period, coastal locale, presence of Tom Courtenay and Penelope Wilton and even an obsession with potatoes and writing, it also recalls The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. And Volker Bertelmann’s gushing score almost unseats the drama from the start. Of course, we all think we know where the story is going. But Ms Arterton, who starred in the West End production of Ms Swale’s play Nell Gwynne – and receives an executive producer credit here – has never been better. If anything, Summerland actually has more in common with another British film released the same day – July 31. Both deal with forbidden sexuality, are set by the sea, feature a strong central female performance and herald the debut of a female filmmaker. But whereas Claire Oakley’s Make Up felt like a short stretched to feature length, Summerland has maybe too much plot for its own good.

 

Swale, who directs from her own screenplay, addresses many issues, in particular loss, social intolerance, the role of women in mythology and the desire for and rebuttal of motherhood. Sun-dappled flashbacks hardly reinforce Swale’s claim to originality, but her themes do gain traction as the film unfolds. Much is owed to Gemma Arterton’s presence as the harridan of the piece, as she guides Alice’s secrets gently out of the closet with the flicker of a smile here or a teary eye there. In truth, she is sensational. As her unfortunate charge, Lucas Bond proves to be a winning presence, while Dixie Egerickx (The Secret Garden) is terrific as Frank’s scholastic ‘partner’. For some, the Seven Sisters location on the Sussex coast maybe too much of a good thing, to others a bonus. Nonetheless, Swale has achieved wonders with a limited budget and presents a timely narrative that can but swell the breast. Next time, though, she would do well to streamline her story and to quell those violins.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lucas Bond, Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Dixie Egerickx, Siân Phillips, Amanda Root, Jessica Gunning, Amanda Lawrence, David Horovitch.

 

Dir Jessica Swale, Pro Guy Heeley and Adrian Sturges, Ex Pro Gemma Arterton, Screenplay Jessica Swale, Ph Laurie Rose, Pro Des Christina Moore, Ed Tania Reddin, Music Volker Bertelmann, Costumes Claire Finlay.

 

Quickfire Films/BFI/Embankment Films/Shoebox Films/Iota Films-Lionsgate UK.

99 mins. UK. 2020. Rel: 31 July 2020. Cert. 12A.