Director: Jessica Swale
Writer: Jessica Swale
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Courtenay
During World War II, reclusive writer Alice (Arterton) has her life turned upside down when Frank (Lucas Bond), a child who is an evacuee from the London blitz, is left in her care. Despite her initial reluctance to look after Frank and indeed get close to him, Alice eventually finds herself and her emotions awakened by him.
Well, no return to films being released on the big screen would be complete without the release of a painfully twee crowd pleaser that firmly plants itself in the very middle of the road and refuses to budge from it, and Summerland is undoubtedly that film. Just from reading the plot synopsis even those that have seen a handful of films in their entire life will figure out a vast majority of the plot points of Summerland before they happen. Now, that is of course not necessarily a completely bad thing, as there is very much a place for these kinds of films, especially with real life facing even more uncertainties and difficulties than usual.
Though on a personal note I do feel that Summerland takes one element of its creative license too far; the opening shot makes it extremely clear that the film is set on the Kent coast (and indeed this ‘location’ forms one of the key elements of the plot), however from its very opening shot the film contains constant scenes set in Birling Gap – one of the most famous coastal landmarks in EAST SUSSEX! Now I appreciate that films are often creative with the real locations that they are set in, and Birling Gap is of course a stunning and cinematic backdrop to use for any film, but my home county of Kent does also have some stunning coastline as well. Maybe I just take it personally that a film claims to be set in Kent but is so blatantly in the neighbouring county of East Sussex, but when films demonstrate such an egregious disregard for British geography it does tend to really get to me.
Oh well, that is my problem, back to the review of the film….
Though its narrative may be littered with genre clichés, Summerland certainly contains at its core some very positive messages and does admittedly also (despite being set during World War II) make a very admirable (and reasonably effective) attempt to also incorporate more topical and contemporary themes into the narrative – though with the ultimate (lack of) substance that is to be expected from a middle of the road film like this that does not even attempt to contemplate taking any kind of narrative risks.
However, for all of its plentiful flaws, there is no denying that Summerland is a very watchable film that serves as the perfect light hearted escapism from reality, even though as soon as you step out of the cinema back into the misery of real life it is a film that will immediately escape from memory. It is certainly a film that the demonstrates the usual narrow minded naivety of similar films (wartime British dramas that are shamelessly twee is surely by now its own genre? – perhaps called ‘world war twee’!), but does have some very lovely and very positive messages that we can all relate to, and we could certainly all do with embracing – at least briefly while watching the film before we step back into the misery of reality. I think it is fair to say that we would all like life to be this nice and gentle, and neat and tidy, so for that reason alone we cannot help but be engaged and entertained by films like Summerland.
What does make Summerland that more watchable and engaging is the leading performance; Gravesend’s finest (which is in KENT) Gemma Arterton is exceptional in the leading role, and this helps elevate the middle of the road narrative and script that her character finds herself stuck in. Likewise, there is strong support from Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Courtenay (who for the last couple of decades has only really played one character but does it very well) and Penelope Wilton. It is no spoiler to say that Arterton’s protagonist is haunted by her former relationship with Mbatha-Raw’s character, and this part of the story (that is told via flashbacks) is actually far more interesting than her painfully predictable central relationship and character arc that involves the child character. Summerland certainly embraces some very engaging themes of love, tolerance, forgiveness and accepting death and using a belief system as a way to deal with all of these – linked of course to the protagonist’s main occupation and apparent location. How these are all incorporated into the narrative is dealt with extreme neatness and tidiness that would be the envy of the most efficient Corby trouser press, but there is no denying that it makes for a very watchable film. Indeed, its painful predictability is actually quite reassuring in a way.
Summerland is also a very well made film that certainly does not look out of place on the big screen; Volker Bertelmann’s Desplat-esque plinkety plonk score certainly takes no risks but is effective enough, while director Swales’ camerawork and Laurie Rose’s sun-drenched cinematography capture the EAST SUSSEX (not KENT) coastline wonderfully in a way that makes everything just seem okay, and I mean EVERYTHING! Yes, life may contain copious amounts of unfairness and tragedy – but one shot of those dramatic cliffs in EAST SUSSEX (not KENT) covered in sunshine makes it all okay – well, for 90 minutes anyway.
Summerland may be riddled with flaws, and the more cynical one is, the more flaws one will find within the narrative, but in these troubled times it serves as 90 minutes of breezy, entertaining escapism.
Though it never even attempts to take any narrative risks, there is undoubtedly something reassuring about the extremely predictable and functional crowd-pleasing storytelling of Summerland. It may not last long in the memory, but it certainly contains some much needed (if slightly naïve) positivity that we could all do with right now.