Film Review – Summerland (2020)

There may be a faint glimmer of something approaching normality in the distance, but comfort and solace in the form of movies is still very much the order of the day.  Which may be one of the reasons behind the release of World War II drama Summerland this week, pitting it against Russell Crowe’s road rage thriller Unhinged.  It’s hard to imagine two movies more diametrically opposed.

London is under bombardment during the Blitz, children are being moved en masse to the south coast and young Frank (Lucas Bond) finds himself billeted with Alice (Gemma Arterton), a reclusive writer who lives on the outskirts of a seaside village and has no intention of taking in an evacuee.  As well as having to cope with her unwanted young guest, she’s still troubled by heart breaking memories of a relationship from the late 20s – the reason for her solitary lifestyle.  As the boy becomes more settled in her home and the two start to find  common ground, he receives tragic news from home which proves to be something of a turning point for him and, unexpectedly, for Alice.

Photographed with a beautifully wistful air, Summerland has an almost chocolate box look to it, one redolent of fond memories and full of hazy summer sunshine that gives the film a dream like quality.  Fittingly so, but you’ll have to see the film to understand why.  It recreates the atmosphere of village life very nicely, with Alice nicknamed “The Witch” by the local children and the target for all manner of nuisance pranks, simply because she lives alone and doesn’t care much for children – or, indeed, anybody else.  Directed with affection by Jessica Swale – it’s her debut feature and she also wrote the screenplay – it boasts a cast with a serious pedigree, plus a couple of child actors – Bond in particular – who more than hold their own in stellar company.  The cast – Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Courtenay, Penelope Wilton et al – is a huge magnet but turns out to be crucial in another way.  It’s the number one reason why you keep watching the film.

Because there is a downside and it’s a serious one.  You need little more than the first fifteen minutes to work out exactly how the narrative is going to pan out and even the attempt at a twist towards the end doesn’t help.  For the rest of the film, you’ll be engaged by the performances while simultaneously watching closely to see if you’re right – and hoping you’re not.  It’s not to be recommended.  And when a film has so much on its side, it’s close to tragic that it’s hampered to such an extent by a storyline which is so transparent so early.  It’s all the more disappointing that it comes from Swale, an award winning playwright.

All of which makes Summerland a sad experience.  It tries valiantly to address some contemporary issues in a setting that, for many of us, is entirely another world but finds itself thwarted at every turn by the predictability of its narrative.  This could have been wonderfully captivating and magical.  Instead, it’s a large slice of cinematic déjà vu.

★★ 1/2

Drama, Romance, History | Cert: 12A | Lionsgate | 31 July 2020 | Dir. Jessica Swale | Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lucas Bond, Tom Courtenay, Penelope Wilton, Sian Phillips.