'Summerland': Film Review

IFC FIlms
From left: Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Gemma Arterton in 'Summerland'
Far from heaven.
7/31/2020

Gemma Arterton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw star in Jessica Swale's feature debut about a reclusive writer whose romantic past resurfaces during World War II.

Both Gemma Arterton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw enjoyed success on the London stage in the title role of playwright Jessica Swale's comedy about Restoration actress and royal mistress Nell Gwynn. Their collaboration continues in Swale's first step into features as writer-director. But Summerland, while it's an original screenplay, has the feel of sentimental historical fiction, the kind of decorous novel that's a dime a dozen as Brit TV miniseries material. For a story in which a potentially controversial mixed-race lesbian relationship plays a significant part, it's also surprisingly insipid.

That's disappointing given how captivating Arterton was a few years back in the rousing charmer Their Finest, another old-fashioned British home-front drama set during the London Blitz years that highlighted a woman's role in the war. Still, older audiences with an appetite for English nostalgia and panoramic views of the chalky cliffs and beaches of the East Sussex coast might find this IFC Films release pleasant entertainment, even if its key plot pivots seem too absurdly predetermined to be plausible.

Arterton plays Alice Lamb, a writer who has shut herself off from the world in her seaside cottage in Kent. She's first encountered in her senior years played by Penelope Wilton in 1975, banging away at her typewriter and responding tersely to local kids who interrupt her work while collecting for charity. The younger Alice is no less crabby, chain-smoking as she strides around in high-waisted Katharine Hepburn-style trousers with a wild mane of hair flying behind her. Alice's self-imposed isolation makes her the subject of disapproving gossip in the village and the target of pranks by rowdy schoolchildren who claim she's a witch.

Inattention to her mail causes her to miss a letter about fostering a young London evacuee displaced by the air raids and by his parents' involvement in the war effort. So when Frank (Lucas Bond) arrives on her doorstep Alice reluctantly agrees to keep him for a week, only until alternative arrangements can be made. But even without the insistent tinkling of Volker Bertelmann's syrupy score, it would be a safe bet that Alice's frosty demeanor is destined to melt.

She's working on an analytical study of folklore that delves into the science behind the myths, based on the belief that every legend or perceived miracle must have a foundation in reality, misinterpreted over time as an act of magic or God. The film's title comes from Alice's investigation into the pagan conceptualization of the afterlife known as "The Summerland." None of that mumbo jumbo ever really acquires much thematic heft, but the connection between the living and the dead comes into focus when Frank experiences a shattering loss.

Before that happens, however, the gradual reopening of Alice's heart keeps taking her mind back to her time in the 1920s with Vera (Mbatha-Raw), the glamorous beauty who was the great love of her life until she pulled away to answer the call of motherhood. Through an unlikely exchange of dialogue that rings not remotely true for wartime England, Frank intuits the secret of Alice's romantic past and is instantly accepting.

The Major Plot Revelation, when it drops, seems such a contrived melodramatic flourish that even Douglas Sirk might have hesitated to risk it. And while it's admirable that Swale is attempting to apply contemporary attitudes to a period piece, glossing over what would have been issues of intolerance in matters of race and sexuality at that time undermines the material's dramatic integrity.

It's good to see some gifted character actors among the supporting cast, notably Tom Courtenay, Siân Phillips and Amanda Root, though aside from a tender moment or two with Courtenay's kindly schoolmaster, they are mostly limited to the duties of stock village types. Wilton's bookend scenes are not much more than a cameo, and Mbatha-Raw looks dewy and gorgeous but has no space within the memory interludes to build a character.

Much time is spent on Frank's friendship at school with young Edie (Dixie Egerickx, the lead in the upcoming remake of The Secret Garden), a spiky girl who describes herself as a maverick and a rule-breaker. Rather than adding anything essential to the plot, however, this seems like Swale planting clues about the instinctual conditioning of Frank to be an open-minded free thinker. Bond is appealing enough in the role, though he mostly trails along in the furious wake of Arterton's Alice, who's so unrelentingly surly in the establishing scenes that her inevitable thaw seems mechanical.

As capable as the actors are, I can't say I cared much about any of the characters, which made the emotionally uplifting climax feel underpowered. The scope for which this handsome but bland film strives so hard is present mainly in the wide-open spaces of its picturesque locations.

Production companies: Shoebox Films, Iota Films
Distributor: IFC Films (VOD and select theaters)
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lucas Bond, Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Dixie Egerickx, Siân Phillips, Amanda Root, Jessica Gunning, Amanda Lawrence
Director-screenwriter: Jessica Swale
Producers: Guy Heeley, Adrian Sturges
Executive producers: James Arterton, Jan Pace, Natascha Wharton, Gemma Arterton, Tim Haslam, Hugo Grumbar, Zygi Kamasa, Emma Berkofsky
Director of photography: Laurie Rose
Production designer: Christina Moore
Costume designer: Claire Finlay-Thompson
Music: Volker Bertelmann
Editor: Tania Reddin
Casting: Shaheen Baig

Rated PG, 100 minutes