War films tend to go one of two ways: Either they focus on the military and what it takes to actually fight the war, or they concentrate on how civilians are affected by its horrors, either directly or indirectly. The new film Summerland takes the latter approach, delving deep into an English seaside village with one particularly odious resident.
That person is Alice (Gemma Arterton), a research writer who lives alone in a house overlooking the White Cliffs of Dover. She’s detested and/or feared by almost everyone in town for her surly attitude, and she does nothing to try to win them over. Things start to change when she’s asked to take in Frank (Lucas Bond), who’s been sent away from London to protect him from German air raids during World War II.
Although initially stand-offish toward him, Alice’s icy demeanor soon starts to thaw as Frank shows an interest in her research. Frank, desperate for any kind of normalcy, not only gloms on to the small morsels of kindness Alice sends his way, but also befriends Edie (Dixie Egerickx), a girl who could rival Alice in her unsociability.
Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Jessica Swale, the film is so finely detailed that you’d swear it was based on a best-selling book. However, the idea comes directly from Swale’s mind, making it all the more impressive. She layers the interactions of the characters upon each other in such a way that each person feels fully realized even if they only appear in a handful of scenes.
Swale also mixes in flashbacks to Alice’s younger days when she was in a relationship with Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). The juxtaposition between her openness and happiness with Vera and her withdrawn nature in the current day of the film highlights how much she has changed in a relatively short period of time. Swale threads this part of the story in just enough to make an impact, which pays increasing dividends as the film goes along.
The story is designed to keep its characters mostly away from the horrors of war, but given that it’s taking place at the height of World War II, thoughts of it overshadow every aspect. When it does delve more overtly into the events of the war, the impression those scenes make is even greater.
Arterton has been working steadily in films for over a decade, but she has yet to have a true breakout role. While this film is too small for her role to be transformative for her career, she shows off a star quality that bodes well for future films.
Bond is instantly memorable, displaying a charisma and intelligence that makes him more than a mere child actor. Mbatha-Raw is compelling in her brief appearances, and two-time Oscar nominee Tom Courtenay brings humor and gravitas to his role as a school headmaster. Downton Abbey favorite Penelope Wilton makes special appearances as an older Alice.
Summerland is an auspicious debut for Swale, one that shows her skills as both a storyteller and a filmmaker. It’s a deeply personal film whose characters pop off the screen thanks to a great combination of writing and acting.
Summerland opened in select theaters on July 31. It will also be available via VOD/streaming platforms like Vudu, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, GooglePlay, and more.