With all its poignant elements — a World War II setting, a quaint seaside town, a long-lost love, a child who changes an adult’s life for the better, and on and on — Summerland should be a sticky sweet English confection, gooey and topped with treacle. However, in her feature debut, writer/director Jessica Swale has made an unexpectedly beguiling drama. It narrowly avoids being too syrupy, largely due to the lead performance from Gemma Arterton and the injection of contemporary themes that are often absent from period movies. Instead, we’re treated to a warm film, brimming with compassion for each of its characters.
Summerland briefly introduces us to Alice in the 1970s, where she’s a grump (played by the always welcome Penelope Wilton) who seems to prefer the company of her typewriter to people. Three decades earlier, Arterton’s Alice doesn’t fit in with 1940s Kent either, where her unkempt hair, muddy trousers, and gruff attitude set her apart from her neighbors. Flashbacks to the 1920s reveal a different woman: a bobbed, vivacious Alice, whose life changes when she falls for Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is conspicuously absent in Alice’s present, solitary existence.
In the 1940s, Alice is a prickly single woman who lives alone and whose time is occupied by writing books about the true origins of myths. She has little time for anyone — least of all 14-year-old Frank (Lucas Bond), the London evacuee who is deposited on her doorstep. Alice initially fights against providing a temporary home for the teen away from the bombing in the capital, but soon she finds him to be a kindred spirit who takes interest in her research and doesn’t judge her for who she is or who she loved.
Though Summerland is grounded in the reality of World War II-era England, imagination tinges it as a result of Alice’s studies into the afterlife of the title. The pagan concept of Summerland captures Frank’s attention, too; he’s eager to see the mythical floating island, despite Alice’s focus on providing a scientific explanation for those who say they have glimpsed it. There’s just the right amount of whimsy here, and it keeps the proceedings from being either too twee or too pedestrian.
Summerland features some lovely details, particularly in Alice and Frank’s evocative scenes, as well as in his interactions with an oddball fellow student, Edie (Dixie Egerickx) and a kindly headmaster (Tom Courtenay). These bits work to bring the story to life, but the screenplay largely lacks the connective tissue in other key moments. Swale’s script is occasionally underwritten, leaving more questions than answers in some elements of its plot. Summerland displays great affection for its characters — and wants us to share in its feelings — but it doesn’t lavish as much attention on its story or even some of its underlying themes. Lingering questions couple with a too-neat conclusion to nag at the brain, but audiences will still likely find that their heart takes over. Some of Summerland‘s turns(and surprisingly not its fantastical ones) are frankly ludicrous, but it’s still emotionally effective when it matters.
Despite its name (and July release date), Summerland is a film for cozy times, bundled up in a sweater with a honeyed mug of tea cupped in hands. Swale has made a gentle film that doesn’t challenge the audience as much as it cuddles them, which might be just what they’re looking for.