Movie Review: ‘Summerland’ offers up a wonderful and wistful whirlwind of emotions
Whether or not it’s still too early in 2020 to start mentioning favorite films of the year, I’m going on record saying “Summerland” is one of my favorite films of the year. As a first-time writing and directing feature from British playwright and stage director Jessica Swale, it’s a nearly flawless (not totally) study of the human condition during happy times and during periods of duress. It also gets into how people need people, whether they’re appealing or unlikable, to get through rough patches. And it’s the sort of film that, although it pulls you through an emotional wringer, it leaves you with a feeling of bliss.
Spanning a handful of decades (it begins and ends in the 1970s, and spends most of its time jumping back and forth between events in the ’40s and ’20s), it’s the story of three people – Alice (Gemma Arterton), Frank (Lucas Bond), and Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Most of it focuses on the unexpected living relationship between selfish, self-centered, frustrated, probably lonely Alice, clacking away at her typewriter in her isolated seaside cottage in Sussex, and young, innocent, curious, confused, probably lonely Frank who, against Alice’s will, has been dropped off at her door, where she is to be his guardian during the London Blitz.
“There’s been a mistake,” she says to the agency woman. “No, there hasn’t,” she’s told. “We all have to do our bit.” Frank’s dad is off fighting the Germans, his mom is working in London, and he’s among the children who have been lucky enough to “escape the city.”
So, will this be the beginning of a beautiful friendship? Let’s just say the road it starts out on is a rocky one.
“No, I’m not writing stories,” she explains, with some annoyance, to Frank, as she’s researching a book on folklore, in which she’s determined to debunk myths. “I write academic theses.”
Alice likes, needs, quiet for her work, but inquisitive Frank is full of questions, and he can’t stop asking them, even after the headmaster at his new school (Tom Courtenay, in a sprightly, humorous performance) lets slip to Frank that Alice is known as “the beast at the beach.” After some initial periods of silence at the cottage, she opens up a bit, seeming to enjoy having someone there to talk with, though it’s clear that she’s got some emotional baggage, and can easily erupt into argument.
It’s when Frank is off at school, where he meets and befriends another young evacuee, the feisty Edie (Dixie Egerickx), that Alice slips into her comfortable solitude, and the film flashes to her college days, when she met the equally free-spirited Vera. There’s a great deal of back and forth between these time periods, between good news and bad news, between happiness and misery. And it keeps returning to lengthier scenes of Alice and Frank, of Alice bluntly trying to offer life lessons: “Life is not kind, anguish is inevitable,” and of Frank’s questions: “Why don’t you have a husband?” is a good one, as well as a subject changer.
Swale has fashioned a wise and thoughtful script that nicely matches up some perfect dialogue between Alice and Frank, two lost souls who really do need each other. But the success of the film is anchored by the great chemistry between Arterton and Bond. It’s also apparent between Arterton and Mbatha-Raw, but they share fewer scenes together. There’s also a fantastic string score, of many moods, by composer Volker Bertelmann, and lavish cinematography by Laurie Rose, who makes spectacular use of the gorgeous white cliffs on the Sussex coast.
One brief sequence involving a tense plotline that brings a couple of characters underwater, feels a bit forced, but the film shines when it gets around to revelations that explain occurrences in the past – to viewers – and other revelations that add new dimensions to the story – for the characters. It’s just a lovely movie.
“Summerland” premieres on VOD and streaming services on July 31.
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.
Written and directed by Jessica Swale
With Gemma Arterton, Lucas Bond, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Courtenay