REVIEW: Summerland [2020]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG | Runtime: 99 minutes
    Release Date: July 31st, 2020 (UK)
    Studio: IFC Films
    Director(s): Jessica Swale
    Writer(s): Jessica Swale

Stories have to come from somewhere.

The above quote is a big part of playwright Jessica Swale‘s feature directorial debut Summerland because of its lead Alice Lamb’s (Gemma Arterton) vocation. She writes academic theses about folklore wherein she dissects the scientific and anthropological reasons behind both the supernatural and impossible characters/settings/phenomena within myths. It’s also a rather all-encompassing statement considering how little we know about the character herself. Where did she come from? What events transpired to render her reclusive and ultimately reviled by the nearby townsfolk of Kent? What of that strained dynamic has made the children fear her as a witch and therefore bestow upon her a folklore all her own? Answering the last two questions is simple: independence, individualism, and dispassion. Unapologetic about each trait, she’ll either inspire or exhaust you.

While Alice’s independence and individualism should always be inspirational, she is unfortunately living her adult life between two World Wars at a time when women were still bound to traditional gender roles dictating the opposite of both (as if women aren’t still struggling to overcome those archaic notions today). That therefore leads to the dispassion—or at least what looks like dispassion on the surface to those unwilling to understand who she is and those she adopts that demeanor to ensure they won’t. Swale focuses on how its presence is less about desire and more about preservation courtesy of flashbacks that show her in love. But what that love targets (Gugu Mbatha-Raw‘s Vera) proves another roadblock towards acceptance amongst a conservative community that will never approve.

And now that she’s alone? What incentive does Alice have to play society’s game? If they’re going to treat her like a pariah, she might as well embody that role to isolate herself from their narrow-minded view of the world. She’ll frustrate the local headmaster Mr. Sullivan (Tom Courtenay) by threatening to call the police on his students when they detour to the beach in order to shove dirt through her mail slot. She’ll look at a young girl’s wish for chocolate despite no ration coupons and rub it in by buying a piece to take home. Alice is thus dedicated solely to her work without time for distraction, so the unwelcome presence of one in an evacuee named Frank (Lucas Bond) is the last thing she wants.

As the neighborhood tries to explain, however, everyone must do his/her part in the war effort. If Alice doesn’t take young Frank in, he might be sent even further away from London where his mother has remained to wait for his Air Force pilot father’s return from the fight. She obviously doesn’t care and begrudgingly accepts a one-week compromise while Mr. Sullivan finds another suitable family. But just like no one has been able to get close enough to Alice to know her as more than the “beast on the beach,” she’s never allowed herself to get close enough to them to recognize they aren’t all close-minded Neanderthals unworthy of her time. Frank actual takes an interest in her work on fata morganas. He surprises her.

Is it enough to change her mind? That’s what Swale hopes we will want to discover by investing in these characters. Add little Edie (Dixie Egerickx)—Frank’s new friend who would most definitely view Alice as an idol if she weren’t so afraid of the “witch” rumors—and there’s plenty of room to thaw this writer’s heart even if this newfound happiness is but a mirage itself. The fun she has with the boy can’t help but conjure memories of Vera and stir feelings inside her that she hadn’t felt since those days together years ago. And it couldn’t happen any sooner once tragedy inevitably strikes to push Alice into a headspace she hoped isolation would shield her from repeating. Death can’t be avoided forever, though.

You can easily guess whose demise is imminent and begin to imagine what its affect will be on the tenuous yet ever-expanding friendship evolving between Alice and Frank, but that doesn’t make its impact any less potent. Even though they’re miles from the carnage, this is World War II. Somber realities and painful hardships are prerequisites to the genre. Swale isn’t trying to make her audience sad for the sake of the drama, though. She has a purpose for it as an in-road to a potential rebirth that such adversity can provide. The result is going to be divisive thanks to an unabashed deluge of sentimentality, but the believability of the circumstances above mere convenience should be enough to tug you onto the side of acceptance.

Why wouldn’t you want to embrace a sappy happily-ever-after with everything happening today? With genuinely compassionate performances by all (Bond and Egerickx are endearing, Courtenay is brilliantly awkward, and Penelope Wilton as an older Alice bookending the whole is acerbically hilarious), it’s not too difficult to let the story wash over you like those that Summerland‘s lead works so diligently to investigate. And how could you not want to see Alice find true joy without needing to first compromise her identity? To watch Arterton’s cold stare melt back into the smile we see alongside Mbatha-Raw via flashback (two actors familiar with Swale’s work having both played the lead in her Olivier Award-winning “Nell Gwynn”) is uplifting in the best way possible. Salvation can be pulled from calamity’s wreckage.

[1] Gemma Arterton as “Alice” and Lucas Bond as “Frank” in in Jessica Swale’s SUMMERLAND. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[2] Gemma Arterton as “Alice” and Lucas Bond as “Frank” in in Jessica Swale’s SUMMERLAND. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[3] Gemma Arterton as “Alice” and Gugu Mbatha Raw as “Vera” in Jessica Swale’s SUMMERLAND. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

One Thought to “REVIEW: Summerland [2020]”

  1. B van lierop

    Summerland is a good movie whit a beautifull soundtrack.

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