Alice (Gemma Arterton) has well earned her reputation as the town crank in her small seaside village. So nasty is she that you half expect the townspeople to start shouting, “Burn the witch!” She has that effect, but her surliness does not mean she is not expected to do her part as World War II ravages Europe. Volunteerism is thrust upon her – a woman without an ounce of maternal instinct or selflessness – when Frank (Lucas Bond), a young refugee from the London Blitz, is put in her care. So goes the set-up of Summerland, Olivier award-winning playwright and theater director Jessica Swale’s big-hearted feature writing/directing debut.
“Stories have to come from somewhere,” Alice, a writer, tells Frank. They also have to be going somewhere and where this one is headed is evident from the first meet-mean between a guardian who wants nothing to do her charge and a boy blessed with a sweet disposition and endless charm. An opening scene set 30 years in the future with an aged Alice (Penelope Wilton), still living in the same cottage and pecking away at what looks like the same manual typewriter she’s used since at least the 1940s, only underlines that Summerland is a tale following a predictable path. But plot mechanics scarcely matter in this endearing film. It is the personalities of Alice and Frank, and the endless small details that make up their lives that matter.
The title refers to the pagan idea of an afterlife, a concept Alice introduces to the child. Summerland is part of her research into myths and legends. She also brings Frank to a seaside bluff to look for Fata Morgana, the mirage of the sea. In this case, what she hopes to spy is an image of a nearby castle, seemingly floating in the air. The ideas capture Frank’s imagination, his enthusiasm creating a small chink in Alice’s armor.
Frank also bonds with new schoolmate Edie (Dixie Egerickx), united in shared interests. Separated from his mom in London and his dad off fighting the war, his prickly guardian and new friend are a balm for his loneliness. Frank’s presence in Alice’s house begins to have the same effect on her, even as it reminds her of how she came to be so bitter and isolated in the first place after a breakup with girlfriend Vera (a luminous Gugu Mbatha-Raw). The wound simply never healed.
Shot in Sussex along the region’s glorious white cliffs and gorgeously lenses by cinematographer Laurie Rose, Summerland offers picture-postcard views of the English countryside. But what makes the drama so inviting are the sharp characterizations of Alice and Frank, and the performances. Arterton, a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace and, more recently, Vita Sackville-West in Vita & Virginia, has never been better as she essays a role where thorniness is Alice’s defining trait yet she must also suggest just enough heart to make it believable when Alice’s ice begins to thaw. Bond is terrific as a child thrown into a lion’s den at a time when his life is already unsettled, yet who finds a way to thrive.
Together, the actors’ chemistry is irresistible. Summerland is a resolutely old-fashioned movie that wears its sentiment on its sleeve. That could have been a disaster, but Swale’s confident storytelling never cloys. Instead, she spins a captivating tale, shot through with gruff humor. Alice’s village might reject her; audiences will gladly spend time in her prickly world. –Pam Grady
Summerland is playing in drive-ins, theaters, and digital and cable VOD platforms.