Summerland review: Gemma Arterton shines in this warm wartime drama
Matthew Turner | On 17, Aug 2020
Director: Jessica Swale
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lucas Bond, Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Dixie Egerickx
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This attractive chocolate box drama marks the feature debut of writer-director Jessica Swale, who previously worked with both Gemma Arterton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw on her stage production of Nell Gwynn. Set in Kent during WWII, it’s a handsomely mounted period piece that ticks all the right boxes, even if it ultimately errs too far on the side of caution.
The film opens in 1975, with short-tempered writer Alice (Penelope Wilton) shouting “You want to help the aged? Then bugger off!” at two children who interrupt her work by knocking on her door. We then flash back to wartime Kent, where a younger Alice (now played by Arterton) is feared and hated by the children in her coastal village, labelling her variously as a witch or a Nazi.
Her dislike of children firmly established, Alice is landed with a wartime evacuee by the name of Frank (Lucas Bond). Informed by the local headmaster (Tom Courtenay) that it will be at least a week until he can be rehoused, Alice reluctantly allows Frank to live with her. However, her growing bond with Frank begins to melt her defences and she eventually opens up to him about Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, seen in flashbacks), the great love of her life.
Arterton is positively luminous as Alice, her every flicker of emotion keenly felt by the audience. She sparks charming chemistry with Bond, and the film goes hard on both the joy and the heartbreak of their relationship. Arterton’s 1920s-set scenes with Mbatha-Raw have a similarly infectious energy, so it’s a shame that there are relatively few of them.
The supporting cast are note perfect too. Wilton is fun in her bookending turn, while Courtenay is on fine, twinkly-eyed form as the kindly headmaster and there’s an intriguingly spiky performance from young Dixie Egerickx as Edie, Frank’s best friend.
The production values are impressive throughout, heightened by Laurie Rose’s gorgeous cinematography, which makes full use of the Kent coastline, white cliffs and all. On a similar note, part of the plot revolves around Alice’s academic work debunking myths and legends, and Swale and Rose give the film just the tiniest touch of magic and mystery in a lovely sequence involving a type of mirage.
While it mostly sticks to the predictable feel-good beats, Swale’s script still manages to spring a couple of surprises, and explores some nice ideas along the way, not least in the discussions between Alice and Frank that give the film its title. In addition, Swale doesn’t feel the need to spell everything out, allowing the audience to make a few key connections for themselves.
If there’s a problem, it’s only that the film’s a little too chaste for its own good, as if terrified to offend any less enlightened members of its potentially older audience. On the one hand, the approach is commendable – the script finds a way to calmly discuss love and relationships without ever using the word “lesbian”, just as race is also never mentioned – but it also goes too far the other way, copping out of its only kissing scene by framing the shot in such a way that you don’t even see their lips touch, which seems laughable in 2020.
On top of that, while the bookending epilogue definitely serves its purpose, it also robs the audience of one or two key scenes in the process. Still, these are minor quibbles that don’t detract from the overall pleasures of the film.