SUMMERLAND: A Bright Look At A Dark Time

The summer of 2020 might be a write-off, but we’re still getting a few small odes to the warmth of the season. Blockbusters and anything resembling the usual movies of the summer is a dying wish, and the smaller movies that can feasibly be released are loaded with horror, brutality, and all the usual quick hooks that keep people seated for a couple of hours. Lighter material, ones that require settling into a gentle mood, are harder to sell given our anxiety and ennui, but Summerland is giving it the old college try, attempting to transport us with a gentle story of old.

It does take place during WWII, but it’s not wallowing in the horror. Instead, it’s placed within a secluded house in a cloistered village far away from the action. Here recluse Alice (Gemma Arterton) can continue her study of folklore relatively unperturbed, at least until a boy fleeing the bombing of London is dropped at her door. He doesn’t bring the war to her home but instead brings something much more incredible: a bit of hope.

I know that sounds very whimsical, and perhaps now is not the time for that. If you were thinking that, well, it’s perhaps best you let this one pass you by. Summerland requires surrender to its style to really work, so if you aren’t in the mood there’s nothing here that will win you over. But if it does capture your fancy, its breezy tale of love and connection will charm a few hours out of your day.

Fantasy As Reality

Outside of being set in the past, this film is a throwback to the sugarcoated portraits of history that have largely gone out of style. The idyllic setting, the melodrama that overwhelms reality, and the surface level storytelling are all hallmarks of this particular kind of film, and it can admittedly be hard to slide into their rhythm when encountering them so infrequently. They tell us a falsehood, but an astute viewer understands the knowing deceit. After all, rewrites of history can be enchanting if they avoid dangerous illusions.

SUMMERLAND: A Bright Look At A Dark Time
source: IFC Films

Summerland doesn’t try to cover up anything particularly damning, so its softening of history is a harmless lark. And writer/director Jessica Swale makes sure the winks indicating its fantasy are enmeshed in the story; Alice’s study of folklore allows her to lecture about their basis in reality and their warping of events. “A woman is either a temptress or a virgin” she scoffs about her own gender’s dismissal from so many tales. Meanwhile, the local children call her a witch and wage petty wars with her mail slot to show their disapproval. The dismissal extends to reality, you see. Even our most fantastical tales have truths.

The truth at the heart of Summerland is a simple one: that loneliness is neither healthy nor sustainable, and that love (familial and romantic) makes the rest of your life blossom. This is not told with any subtly, particularly when it comes to the romance, which is mostly told through too brief remembrances of the intense relationship between Alice and Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). The boy is the real blossoming agent here, and while his wheedling into Alice’s life is slightly more nuanced, this movie isn’t here to really challenge you. Summerland’s lessons are gentle, so much so that they eventually meander into very written moments, but that unreality is part of the charm.

Leading Trio Does Enough

Swale comes from the theater, and you can see her comfort with a small group of characters and their interactions shine through. This is her first feature, and while she shows some understanding of how a story can broaden in film vs. theater, she’s not comfortable really pushing too far outside standards yet. That puts a lot of work on the actors, the same as theater does, and luckily for Swale her connections include some of the top tier British actress of our day.

SUMMERLAND: A Bright Look At A Dark Time
source: IFC Films

Now, not all of you may immediately pick out Arterton and Mbatha-Raw as the top of the pack, but they’ve both been quietly and rather successfully pushing against the boxes the industry so often places them in. Arterton gets the sexy former Bond girl hindrances while Mbatha-Raw has to struggle against a white-dominated business. And yet their moments to shine have been bright, with Mbatha-Raw giving everything to the chances she’s gotten in things like Belle and Beyond the Lights while Arterton has balanced smaller, challenging material like Byzantium and The Escape with big-budget projects.

They also both happen to have played the title role in Swale‘s play Nell Gwynn. I assume that connection is what landed them both in Summerland, and while Mbatha-Raw gets shortchanged with a small role as a remembered lover, she is the kind of actress who can pop in and out and still be memorable.

SUMMERLAND: A Bright Look At A Dark Time
source: IFC Films

This is really Arterton‘s movie, and she brings more nuance to the role than is actually required. She could’ve breezed through with a surly frown, but even in the early stages of the movie, she flashes real, deep pain across her face, betraying that Alice isn’t as shut down as she likely appeared on the page. This does much to save the film, as the arc of Alice really is the movie, and as written by Swale it isn’t handled very smoothly. Alice begins far too cruel (she sort of takes candy from a child, which is a bit much), and as I’ve already said, the romance is too brief to feel like the pivotal turning point in her life that the film wants it to be. Arterton and Mbatha-Raw do much to cover these shortcomings along with the equally assured performance from child actor Lucas Bond as the kid who gets thrust on Alice. The small moments these three conjure really make the movie the minor delight it is.

Conclusion: Summerland

If you’re looking for a light, breezy movie to tide you over for a couple of hours, Summerland will hit the spot. There’s enough drama to keep you invested but not enough to overwhelm you with worry or grief, and its comfortably familiar approach makes it a balm during out of control times. You’ll likely forget it as soon as you turn it off, but a balm has its own worth, even if it is temporary.

What did you think of Summerland? What are some of your favorite breezy romances? Let us know in the comments below!

Summerland will be release in theaters and VOD on July 31, 2020.

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