Sometimes, having its heart in the right place is enough to make a good movie just a little bit more endearing. Case in point: the new World War II-era drama Summerland about a reclusive writer named Alice (Gemma Arterton) who has her life destroyed and then slowly pieced back together again with the help of Frank (Lucas Bond), a young boy put in her charge who is also on the verge of losing everything that’s important to him. As sappy as it might seem to say that the two make each other whole, the idea somehow works thanks to a delicate touch from first-time feature writer/director Jessica Swale, an Olivier-award-winning theater writer and director, who forgoes a saccharine approach in favor of something a bit more melancholic and believable.
Alice lives alone in a small house on the seaside of Southern England, away from the perils of living in London, which is being bombed on a regular basis. To keep British children safe, many were shipped to the countryside or coastal villages to live with volunteer families until the war ended. Alice’s overwhelming desire to be left alone to write has made those in her town think all manner of things about her, ranging from her just being mean to being a dangerous witch—and she hasn’t done much to dissuade them from that thinking, either. But when the local school’s headmaster Mr. Sullivan (a charming supporting turn by Tom Courtenay) brings young Frank to Alice’s home, she is surprised and confused since she never volunteered to take care of a child, and wishes him gone immediately. Sullivan asks for a week to find a new family, and so Alice is stuck with Frank, whose father is a pilot in the war and whose mother works for a government minister and can’t be home to take care of him.
As the film goes on, we learn a bit about both of their lives before each entered the other’s orbit. Frank doesn’t believe his parents really love each other and thinks it’s a mistake for them to stay together, even though he loves them both equally. Alice’s writings are about the place where legends, myths, science, and history collide in British literature, something that fascinates Frank, particularly her discussion about mysterious floating castles that have been seen in the skies off the British coasts over the centuries. Are they simply fantasy, or might there be something more to them? (Don’t worry, this is not a movie about searching for floating cities; it’s more of a tangential storyline.) More importantly, it turns out Alice did have a great love in her life—a woman named Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), with whom she shared something of a life together, until Vera refused to give up on her dream of having children one day and left, leaving Alice shattered to the point where the idea of caring for anything or anyone ever again didn’t seem possible.
While Alice and Vera both knew that having a life together in 1940s England (where homosexuality was illegal) probably wasn’t possible, that didn’t make the break-up any easier or less scarring. Not surprisingly, Alice does start to care for Frank and his fragile state as he worries that either or both of his parents might die in the war. He does manage to make a new friend at school named Edie (Dixie Egerickx, who stars in next week’s latest adaptation of The Secret Garden), a fiercely independent girl who in many ways mirrors Alice’s views on life and the world around her, even though Edie is deathly scared of Alice and the rumors of her being a witch. But eventually, Alice and the two children become an odd little makeshift family, loosely held together by their common bond of being societal outcasts.
In Summerland’s final third, there are a couple of turns that range from predictable to completely unexpected, and while some might find them a bit far-fetched, I think they keep in line with the story’s themes of legend and fantastical history. I’m not sure we’re meant to think the movie exists entirely in the real world, but by rooting it there, it makes the characters’ emotions more relatable and their struggles more authentic. I’ve also thought Arterton was severely underrated as an actor, and she brings just the right balance of abrasive, endearing and protective to Alice. She believes in tough love before it was a thing, but her lack of knowledge on how to handle tough situations involving Frank motivates her to try harder and better herself. When one character tells her “No one knows how to be a parent,” that seems to ease her anxiety about the mistakes she’s making, and it’s one of the many honest moments the film has to offer.
The film is bookended by flash-forwards involving an older Alice (played by Downton Abbey’s Penelope Wilton) writing about her hard-earned wartime experiences. At first, the device seems unnecessary, but the concluding scene gives us more welcome revelations that are highly satisfying and continue the warm and inviting motif that the movie uses as its foundation, even when things take darker turns. Avoiding sentimentality without eschewing it completely, Summerland just nuzzles into the heart in such a way as to not take up too much room but still demands you feel something for these kind-hearted characters.
The film will be available Friday in select theaters, streaming services and VOD.
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