Gentle World War Two dramas with a soupcon of romance are a niche genre, but a welcome balm in these troubled times. In recent years, we’ve had Their Finest (Lone Scherfig, 2016) and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mike Newell, 2018) and now we have Jessica Swale’s Summerland. The film opens in 1975 with Penelope Wilton playing a writer named Alice who is looking back on her life and writing her memoir. We then flashback to Gemma Arterton playing the same character in WWII, living alone in a gorgeous isolated seaside cottage in Kent. Because she lives alone, the local schoolboys have concluded that she is a witch/Nazi spy and they post mud, sticks, stones and other detritus through her letterbox. There is a knock at the door and to her horror, she discovers that she must (at least temporarily) take in an evacuee, Frank (Lucas Bond) from London. Alice does not have much tolerance for the displaced child, as she is trying to write a book about myths and folklore, specifically to do with Fata Morgana – floating fairy castles or floating islands, created by witches to lure sailors to their deaths. Predictably, her heart gradually softens and Frank starts to help her with her research into the scientific explanation for the mirage. We also get flashbacks-within-the-flashback, to the late 1920s, when Alice had a romance with Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Acting legend Tom Courtenay plays the headteacher of the local school and Dame Sian Phillips plays the grandmother of Frank’s friend Edie (Dixie Egerickx).
Unlike Their Finest and Potato Peel Society, which were both adaptations of novels, Summerland is an original screenplay by Jessica Swale, but certainly has the feel of being based on a book. Perhaps it is because the protagonist is a writer and it has the flashback structure. Like Thea Sharrock (Me Before You), Josie Rourke (Mary Queen of Scots) and Chanya Button (Vita & Virginia), Swale has transitioned from the world of theatre to film. The myths and folklore that Alice analyses from a scientific viewpoint are interwoven well into the story, with her revealing that Summerland was a pagan notion of heaven. Frank and Alice attempt to see Dover Castle floating in the sky above the sea, one of the mirages that led to the creation of the myth. Both Lucas Bond and Dixie Egerickx give very good child performances, which is good news because Egerickx is going to be playing Mary Lennox in an upcoming adaptation of the beloved book The Secret Garden.
Gemma Arterton is a great actress, who has translated early success in the likes of St Trinians and Prince of Persia (as well as forever having the ‘Bond Girl’ tag attached to her) into an eclectic CV, covering many genres. Horror films The Voices, Byzantium and The Girl with all the Gifts are amongst her best work. The dramas Their Finest and The Escape also gave her a chance to stretch her acting muscles. She gives another complex performance here, with a hard outer-shell and a deep well of pain and vulnerability underneath. The greatest shame of Summerland is that the wonderful Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle, Beyond the Lights, Fast Color) only has a minor supporting role. If you’ve seen stills (featuring Alice and Vera) from the film beforehand and go into this expecting a grand romance, you may come away disappointed, as that isn’t really the focus of the film.
The score is somewhat on the twee side, but does fit well with the film. The composer is Volker Bertelmann, who was Oscar-nominated for Lion (starring Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel). He has been busy recently, with scores for The Old Guard (2020), The Perfect Candidate (2019), Hotel Mumbai (2018) and Adrift (2018), as well as the upcoming Ammonite. The production design by Christina Moore and set decoration by Philippa Hart are a particular strength of the film, especially of Alice’s cluttered and lived-in cottage. The costume design by Claire Finlay-Thompson is also fantastic, with a highlight being the hats and head-dresses in the 1920s-set scenes.
The plot does hinge around some convenient coincidences and gets a bit sentimentally soapy, but Arterton’s central performance anchors the film, adding weight to something that is in danger of floating away like a Fata Morgana. It’s an interesting feature debut from writer-director Jessica Swale, with some complicated ideas and some which are executed a little clunkily. All round, it’s pretty sweet, feel-good and wholesome and there is much to be said for that at the moment. It is is good to see Arterton getting the kind of parts she deserves, I just wish the same could be said for Mbatha-Raw. It will be interesting to see where Swale goes next.
Directed by: Jessica Swale
Written by: Jessica Swale
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton