In nearly any other movie, it would be a disastrous mistake to have a precocious child melt the heart of an ornery adult by telling her to believe in myths because “Stories have to come from somewhere.” And yet somehow, writer/director Jessica Swale makes it work in her debut feature Summerland.
The ornery adult in question is Alice Lamb, played by Gemma Arterton in the movie’s 1940s present and by Penelope Wilton in its 1970s frame narrative. Alice is the terror of her English coastal village, where she lives alone and writes academic texts about mythology when not being pestered by local schoolchildren. Despite her utter distaste for children — an early scene finds her using her ration card to buy a piece of chocolate desired by a little girl and then eating it in front of the child — Alice is sent young Frank (Lucas Bond), a boy evacuated from his London home to escape the German blitz. With his father in the RAF and his mother in the service, Frank has no other place to go. Alice begrudgingly takes him in, under the condition that schoolmaster Mr. Sullivan (Tom Courtenay) find a new family for him in a week.
If you guessed that Frank’s exuberance overcomes Alice’s prickly nature to form a bond with her, well, you’re right, of course. But that pithy description misses the beauty of the film’s imagery and the strength of its performances. At its best, Summerland offers a picture of peace between people searching for a better world. Literally, that better world is Summerland, a sort of Pagan heaven that Alice has been researching for her next book. But more figuratively, it is a world where people can be themselves. For Frank, that means a world where war will not destroy the people he loves. For Alice, that means a world where she can be with the love of her life Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
The movie’s most effective scenes give us glimpses of that world. Alice and Frank wander along beaches and cliffs, searching the horizons for floating castles, signals from loved ones in Summerland. Flashbacks show us the birth and death of Alice’s relationship with Vera, which ends when the latter chooses to be a mother, a journey in which the former will not or cannot join her. Director of photography Laurie Rose uses handheld cam close-ups to focus on the elements anyone would remember when recalling a lost love: the blades of grass dancing in the fields where they lay, her foot caressing yours, the first time they hold hands. Shot in vibrant gold, we understand Alice’s insistence that these intimate moments must live somewhere.
Swale directs the film with a remarkably light touch, giving Arterton and Bond plenty of room to keep their characters from slipping into caricature. The movie needs that light touch in the direction because the narrative suffers from an abundance of plot contrivances. There should be enough tension in the way Frank and Alice carve out a life for themselves while surrounded by people who mistrust them, especially once Edie (Dixie Egerickx) enters the picture — a little girl who seems doomed to suffer the same fate as Alice, even as she mistrusts the older woman. But the movie feels the need to pile complication on top of complication, even if it resolves those complications within minutes. This becomes a real problem toward the back half of the movie, especially when a late plot twist reveals the movie’s entire premise to be a poorly explained contrivance.
Irritating as they may be, even those narrative bumps cannot distract from the power and beauty of the movie’s central theme about building a better world — a story we need now more than ever.