Producers: Guy Heeley and Adrian Sturges Director: Jessica Swale Screenplay: Jessica Swale Cast: Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lucas Bond, Dixie Egerickx, Sián Phillips, Penelope Wilson, Aoibhine McFlynn, Amanda Root, Jessica Gunning, David Horovitch, Martina Laird, Amanda Lawrence, Toby Osmond and Tom Courtenay Distributor: Lionsgate
It would be easy to dismiss playwright Jessica Swale’s first film as a piece of sentimental claptrap. It is, after all, a period tearjerker set during the Blitz that also plays to modern sensibilities by including a lesbian love affair as major plot element. Yet “Summerland,” while undoubtedly, even defiantly, manipulative, works on the most basic emotional levels. It’s one of those rare cases where you realize you’re being manipulated but perhaps won’t mind.
We first meet Alice Lamb as a crusty elderly woman (Penelope Wilson, Isobel Crawley from “Downton Abbey”) feverishly typing away in her ramshackle house on the East Sussex coast, presumably sometime in the 1970s. But almost immediately the time shifts back to World War II, and Alice is now played by Gemma Arterton. She’s still typing away furiously, however, and when disturbed by boisterous children from the local school, responds with rage, stomping resolutely down to the village to complain to long-suffering Mr. Sullivan (Tom Courtenay), the principal, adding the threat of arming herself with a shotgun if necessary to ward off the youngsters who are disrupting her work.
Alice’s desired solitude is totally disrupted when a volunteer bangs on her door and deposits Frank (Lucas Bond), a curly-haired young evacuee from London, on her doorstep. Telling the woman simply to take him away, Alice is informed that’s impossible, and she’ll have to house the boy at least briefly until another place can be found for him. She takes him in, but keeps her distance; when he meekly asks for dinner, she brusquely orders him to cook it himself.
But her icy resolve can’t, of course, last in the face of Frank’s sweet, docile nature, and his unsolicited interest in her work, which turns out to be research on myths, particularly “floating islands,” Fata Morgana mirages that are said to represent in folklore ancient notions of the afterlife, one called Summerland. Meanwhile Frank makes a friend at school in Edie (Dixie Egerickx), another evacuee who is living with her grandparents. She, and the other school children, look upon Alice as a witch, but gradually her attitude will change. So, however, will the girl’s relationship with Frank, when another evacuee, Cassie ( Aoibhine McFlynn) enters their circle.
When another family is found to take Frank in, Alice will decide to remain his guardian instead, and the bond between them grows increasingly strong. And for some reason their relationship has a surprising effect on Alice, prompting her recall the passionate affair she had years before with Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a budding novelist, that saw them rejoicing in each other’s company until Vera left, explaining her burning desire to become a mother. Alice’s recollections seem to become more and more frequent, bringing her both happiness over the memories but pain over the loss, until tragedy intervenes that shatters Frank’s world and leads her to commit fully to the boy’s well-being.
If that were all to “Summerland,” one might be inclined to accept it as a fairly typical tale of a resolutely independent woman becoming a sympathetic surrogate mother. But Swale adds a revelation to the mix that can be logically explained but, in terms of what has gone before, comes across as quite implausible from a bureaucratic standpoint, if nothing else. It does, however, amplify the sentimental quotient of the final scenes, which introduce Martina Laird and Toby Osmond as characters to share the screen with Wilson, in a way that will certainly draw sniffles from more susceptible viewers, as well as nods of satisfaction from others. If you’re a curmudgeon, on the other hand, your reaction will probably be a derisive snort.
Even if one refuses to give in to what, despite its serious underpinnings in twentieth-century bigotry and historical tragedy, is a bit of blarney, however, it would be difficult not to luxuriate in the film’s visuals. Most of the exteriors were shot in glossy widescreen by Laurie Rose in East Sussex (with the famous Seven Sisters chalk cliffs often prominently featured in the background), and the images are gorgeous. Christina Moore’s production design is scrupulously right, although the tidiness of even the supposedly rag-tag areas never seems realistic, and a similar observation might be made of Claire Finlay-Thompson’s costumes. Tania Reddin’s unhurried editing gives the material plenty of time to register without lagging, and Volker Bertelmann’s score strikes the anticipated tones of drama and comedy as needed, only occasionally getting too sweeping or syrupy.
Arterton is the film’s mainstay; she makes Alice a vibrant figure, if not always a credible one, and Bond makes such a sweet, curious Frank that she would have to have had a heart of stone not to capitulate given the circumstances. Egerickx is a real find as tomboyish Edie, but Mbatha-Raw, while looking wonderful in the 1920s garb she wears in the flashbacks, can’t elevate Vera to anything more than a plot contrivance. The film benefits from some fine character turns in supporting roles from the likes of Wilson, Sián Phillips, Amanda Root and especially the always-invaluable Courtenay, who invests Sullivan with a sense of genuine humanity as well as providing some comic relief.
In the end it’s understandable that “Summerland” includes lots of talk about magic and is so visually calculated, because in the final analysis the story is essentially a modern fairy-tale. Whether Swale’s sleight-of-hand will fool you into swallowing it will be a matter of choice; but for many it will be the sort of cinematic trick they’ll enjoy having played on them.