Cinema Review: Summerland | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, August 15th, 2020  


Studio: IFC Films
Directed by Jessica Swale

Jul 31, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Written and directed by Olivier Award-winning British playwright Jessica Swale, Summerland is a hazy, nostalgic story set to appeal to those who see the Blitz Spirit, war-time sing-alongs, wooden toys and the white cliffs of Dover through distinctly rose-tinted glasses.

Set against the backdrop of the Second World War, Gemma Arterton plays a spiky, reclusive writer, Alice, holed up in a beautiful cliff-side cottage. Here her attentions are focussed less on the war raging across the water, and more on folklore and mythology, fascinated by what rational answers there may be for fantastical seafarer tales of ‘islands in the sky’.

She is also less interested in similar myths about witches and temptresses, painfully aware of what type of women may have been given these labels in the past. Alice lives alone, and as such has become the subject of village gossip whilst being taunted by some of the local school children.

Alice’s solitude however, is cut short by the arrival of a young evacuee from London, Frank, who is unceremoniously dumped at her doorstep much to her chagrin. Told to ‘do her bit’, Alice reluctantly accepts the charge, safe in the knowledge that she may be able to arrange alternative accommodation for Frank in a week.

But Frank’s natural charm and inquisitive nature helps endear him to the initially frosty Alice, and flashbacks to a gentle romance with Vera, (played by the ever radiant Gugu Mbatha-Raw), further reveal Alice’s tender side. It’s not long though, before they are inevitably touched by the reaches of the war, and it’s in the film’s more involving second half that the story takes flight as Frank and Alice’s relationship develops and the action finally rises above the mid-afternoon BBC drama feel of the first half. But once up in the air, the film merely glides gently along, the wind never really strong enough to knock anyone off course. Even the chalky cliffs and choppy waters seem unthreatening. Even Dover Castle, the ‘Guardian of England’, manifests itself softly in the clouds. It’s all a bit tame.

There is a much better film here. Alice’s diluted romance is never really explored in depth, in the way that better films like Portrait of a Lady on Fire explore the constraints of same-sex relationships against backdrops of ignorance and intolerance. There is no daring soundtrack that gave Arterton’s most recent film, Vita & Virginia, its edge. Instead much of what we see are PG-rated moments of sadness and trauma. The kind that can all be wiped away with a nice cup of tea.

Not using Penelope Wilton more, who plays an older Alice, also seems like an overly protective way of concealing the film’s major plot twist. There could’ve been a nice back and forth between the two, but instead it’s Arterton who dominates the screen. No bad thing of course, but Wilton and Mbatha-Raw both deserved a little more.

And although there are some nice lines for the always engaging Tom Courtenay, most of the village characters are no more than background props. I was surprised not to see a vicar riding a bicycle.

But not all films are created equal. This is not designed to challenge, poke or needle at the brain. It’s gentile, late-afternoon fair. Bunting and village greens stuff. With so much going on, maybe we could all do with a little tea-break?

Author rating: 4/10

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Average reader rating: 5/10


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