The Verse’s Elizabeth Carrington reviews Summerland, written and directed by Jessica Swale – starring Gemma Arterton, Lucas Bond, Dixie Egerickx, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton and Tom Courtenay. The film deals with the themes of war, romance, LGBTQ+, family, friendship and loss, a ‘4 out of 5’ and ‘must-watch if you are looking for a feel-good movie’ in our reviewer’s opinion.
Set against the backdrop of World War II in a picturesque Kentish village, Summerland is a story straight from the heart. Starring Gemma Arterton as cantankerous Alice Lamb, an academic writer who specializes in folklore, living in a dreamy seaside cottage on the Kentish coastline. Arterton is delightful from the get-go, wild and unafraid of the local youths who often harass her for being an unconventional woman of the time. She is unmarried, has no children, and lives alone. People in the village refer to Alice as a witch or even accuse her of being a Nazi spy. And yet, none of that brings her down – she’s a very admirable woman in that sense.
The story begins with Alice taking in a young evacuee boy from London named Frank (Lucas Bond, a talented young actor to look out for, in my opinion.) This angers her a great deal as she doesn’t recall volunteering to take in any evacuees. She treats Frank with disdain at first, despite his attempts to develop a friendship between them. Alice believes that he is interfering with her writing and her own self-imposed isolation from people.
Another standout performance comes from Dixie Egerickx’ Edie, who befriends Frank at his new school. She is another female character who refuses to conform to societies’ expectations of her, preferring to wear all-male clothes and hang around Frank instead of other girls. It’s rare to see a young boy exposed to these types of women and girls in war dramas – making it a real treat to witness when he does not question their ideas of gender or femininity. Swale’s writing really wanted to let us know that this was a film by a woman about all different kinds of women.
Although Alice seems desperate to get rid of Frank the moment, he steps foot in her house. The two slowly begin to bond over Alice’s academic work about a place called Summerland. An afterlife that is primarily believed in by Wiccans and some contemporary pagans. Alice claims to have seen it once in the form of a castle floating over the sea. This is a phenomenon known as Fata Morgana; a kind of superior mirage where an image is projected in a narrow band over the horizon. The term Fata Morgana is named after the Arthurian sorceress named Morgan le Fay, tying the theme of witches further into the narrative.
It’s after this point in the film that we begin to see flashbacks in Alice’s life that explain why she has become so reclusive and unfriendly within the town. She had once been in love with a woman named Vera (Gugu-Mbatha Raw). Their relationship ended sourly when Vera decided she wanted a life where she could have children. The chemistry between Raw and Arterton feels wonderfully genuine. And you can feel the pain when Alice is forced to separate from Vera because she can’t give Vera what she really wants. I have never encountered a lesbian narrative in a war film. So it was refreshing to watch not only a love story between two women in the 1940s but also an interracial relationship.
Throughout the heart-warming scene between Alice and Frank, she warily reveals to the boy that her heart had once loved a woman. She asks him whether he thinks it’s okay for two people to love one another even if they are the same sex. He earnestly agrees that it is better than marrying someone you don’t love, hinting towards his mother and father. It really is a powerful scene of acceptance between two very different people during a period in the world where there was so much prejudice against certain groups of people.
Alice doesn’t seem to clock until the last half of the film that from all her memories being with Vera, she is reminded of Vera through Frank. The two share similar laughs and expressions, they have the same familial smile too. I was thrown when, of course, the big reveal was that Vera is Frank’s mother and that she had purposely sent him to Alice knowing that he would be safe with her. By this point, Alice thoroughly adores Frank and doesn’t think twice about chasing him to London when he runs away after Alice kept his father’s death from him. But it’s safe to say she is further fuelled by her love for Vera as well as Frank. The two return from London after discovering that Frank’s family home has been hit during a blitz, and it’s left uncertain whether Vera too has died. Though it feels that if Vera has indeed perished, Frank has found a new family in Alice.
There is an epilogue that features Wilton’s wonderfully performed older Alice, and it’s almost a shame the actress wasn’t utilized more throughout the film. Fortunately, Summerland has a very satisfying end, which is more often than not nowadays, another rarity in the film industry.
Overall, Swale’s Summerland is not your typical British war film. The female LGBTQ+ focus is well overdue in this film genre. Arterton plays her role superbly while being support equally by her co-star, Bond. Theirs really is the dynamic to watch in Summerland as well as Arterton’s with Raw. If you’re looking for a feel-good film to watch, then Summerland is the film to watch. It’s warm, but dramatic, and tells the stories of those far away from the frontlines. But those stories are no less important than the former.
Summerland is available on Amazon Prime to rent.
Featured image: Michael Wharley / IFC Films