British playwright and screenwriter Jessica Swale thoroughly impresses with her debut film 'Summerland', a film that manages to remain sincere and heartwarming, despite the threat of war that looms over it.
Initially set in Kent in 1975 but told primarily in a World War II flashback, 'Summerland' is the story of reclusive writer Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton, 'Murder Mystery', 'Their Finest'). Alice is a shrew of the highest order, the kind of unapologetically independent woman that prompts children to fill her letterbox with dirt and for those in town to "get thee under the table - and hide!" should they cross her path. It's hard not to draw parallels between Alice and women in the folklore she studies, stories of witches and those outcast by society. Alice seems to be fine with these comparisons too, decidedly alone until she reluctantly takes in Frank (Lucas Bond, 'Slumber', TV's 'The Alienist'), a young boy evacuated from London. It's the kind of "obstinate-adult-softens-to-the-child-unexpectedly-placed-in-their-care" plot that you've seen Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson ('Jumanji: The Next Level') tackle a dozen times over his career, but at 'Summerland's' core is a story much more sincere and complex.
For some, there will be moments of 'Summerland' that feel either incredibly well-worn or overly sentimental, a side effect of the British historical drama subgenre 'Summerland' neatly fits into. However, it's in the narrative shift that occurs roughly halfway through that makes 'Summerland' special, even if shots from the film could fit into the visual style of almost any other film like it. An offscreen death alters the course of the story as it becomes a meditation on the loss of love and how the grief it causes gives us two options; to shut it and the world out, or to let it in for the good of others, however painful that may be.
Gemma Arterton is fantastic as Alice, playing the script's more cliché moments with an authenticity that lets them land. A key component of 'Summerland' is the relationship between Frank and Alice, and despite the rocky beginnings, they are lovely to watch together and are one of my favourite onscreen character pairings of 2020. It's also difficult to not spend this entire review singing the praises of Gugu Mbatha-Raw ('Misbehaviour'), who continues to impress no matter what role she tackles or how much screen time she has. Without giving too much away, Mbatha-Raw's character is to blame for Alice's emotional baggage. Her chemistry with Arterton is magnetic and authentic, making Alice's pain all the more heartbreaking.
An offscreen death alters the course of 'Summerland' as it becomes a meditation on the loss of love and grief.
'Summerland' goes beyond its often-tired narrative beats to deliver a moving story about love, loss and belonging. Its masterstroke, however, is in how it manages to take its devastating subject matter and present it in a mostly jaunty way. Bring some tissues and an iced tea, and you've got the perfect film to escape from the summer heat with.