Love, loss and friendship in the shadow of war

Summerland Alice
Gemma Arterton as reclusive writer Alice Lamb in Summerland (Photo by Michael Wharley/Flying Castles Ltd.)

By Richard Ades

Alice Lamb doesn’t care much for people, and she especially has it in for children. So when she’s asked to take in an adolescent boy who’s fled German bombing raids, she agrees only because she’s given no other choice.

That’s the setup of Summerland, a drama set on the cliff-strewn coast of England during World War II. Written and directed by Jessica Swale, it spins its tale of friendship and lost love in a way that’s pleasant and beautiful but a bit too contrived to ring true.

Partial spoiler alert! Viewers may find some of the film’s contrivances easier to accept after a last-minute revelation places them in context. But until then, our sense of reality is challenged.

For starters, we simply don’t believe that Alice (Gemma Arterton) is as misanthropic as she seems. True, the writer lives alone in a seaside home and rails against anyone who dares to interrupt her work, but her angry words seem like mere affectations when spoken by this young woman with the pretty, unlined face. Thus, when a London evacuee named Frank (Lucas Bond) finds refuge under her roof, we have no doubt she’ll eventually warm up to him. The only question is when and how.

A series of flashbacks explain Alice’s lonely and bitter existence. At some time in the past, she found a soulmate in the form of warmhearted Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), but their relationship apparently hit a snag. Back in the “present,” she eventually confides this loss to the inquisitive Frank, who reacts in a way that’s surprisingly mature for both his age and his era. She’s moved, while we’re given one more reason to doubt the tale’s authenticity.

More convincing than the friendship between Alice and Frank is the one Frank develops with his stubbornly individualistic classmate, Edie. That’s partly because Edie is wonderfully portrayed by Dixie Egerickx (star of an upcoming remake of The Secret Garden), but mostly because the two aren’t forced to mold their characters to suit the movie’s plot points.

Speaking of which, Alice and Frank soon begin discussing bits of the folklore that Alice studies and writes about, including “floating islands” and “Summerland,” a kind of pagan paradise. These inevitably make their way into the story, as do developments that are rather too convenient to be believed. (Second spoiler alert! But then, maybe they shouldn’t be, according to the aforementioned revelation.)

With a soaring score by Volker Bertelman and gorgeous seaside cinematography by Laurie Rose, Summerland is a lovely way to spend an hour and 40 minutes. Just don’t expect to see anything that bears much resemblance to real life.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Summertime (PG) is available from VOD outlets beginning July 31.


Author: Richard Ades

Richard Ades was the arts editor of The Other Paper, a weekly news-and-entertainment publication, from 2008 until it was shut down on Jan. 31, 2013. He also served as TOP's theater critic throughout its 22-year existence.

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