A well-meaning but slight portrait of war-time suffering, Summerland felt manufactured to me. Despite its subject matter, I thought it lacked gravitas and authenticity.
We’re in Kent in south-eastern England during the Blitz of 1940-41. Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton) is an avid researcher and writer. She analyses folklore. Her small community regards her as harsh and curmudgeonly. She doesn’t care for idle chit-chat and pleasantries. She’s a loner, totally absorbed in her work. Children take pleasure in running past her home and antagonising her by dropping stones and sticks in her letterbox. So she doesn’t see an official letter advising her she will be taking in an “evacuee” from London – a boy whose parents are caught up in the war effort.
A youngster named Frank (Lucas Bond) simply turns up on her doorstep one day with an official. Alice is horrified and keen not to take him. But reluctantly, she agrees to shelter and feed him for a week … until he’s re-housed. Frank is a curious, intelligent kid, who’s particularly proud of his father, who happens to be a pilot. Frank enjoys making and playing with toy planes. Alice only wants him to stay out of her way, but the gulf between them gradually thaws as Frank shows interest in her work.
At the same time, Alice reflects on the past love of her life, harking back to the 1920s. It’s an image she can’t get out of her head. Before this is over, Alice’s past and present will intersect. Frank, meanwhile, befriends a girl, Edie (Dixie Egerickx), who he is partnered with at school.
With so much at play here, Summerland had the potential to be something special. As it is, it’s pleasant but (notwithstanding some dark moments) lightweight fare. Writer-director Jessica Swale fails to make the most of the basic premise in her feature directorial debut. Instead, she goes for “nice” characterisations, without the substance I was looking for. More often than not she makes obvious choices, save for one “gotcha” moment that sets up the film’s conclusion.
As a result, the cast mainly work within a narrow band, notwithstanding their capabilities of producing more. Gemma Arterton has a bit more latitude, though I didn’t “buy” the character she was playing. Alice was either exaggeratedly surly, bothered and time poor, ready to speak in reverential terms about mythology or suddenly able to let down her guard. Overall, the compromises made for the sake of trying to woo an audience were far too great for my liking. In short, Summerland is bland.
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Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.