‘Summerland’ Review: Gemma Arterton’s Rich Performance Bolsters Somewhat Soapy WWII Drama

Jessica Swale's feature directorial debut is packed with twists and big secrets, but smart plotting and a lovely turn from Arterton recommend it.
Summerland Feature Film Stills by Michael Wharley
Michael Wharley

Tucked in her seaside cottage, clattering away at her typewriter, and smoking like a chimney, Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton) doesn’t fit in with her buttoned-up small-town Kent neighbors. Perhaps it’s the townsfolk’s predilection for referring to her as a witch (or, if they are feeling really spicy, “the bitch on the beach”)? Or the punk kids who shove trash into her mailbox and run off screaming? Maybe the elder statesman who tells Alice she’s all but asking to be shunned by, what, simply existing? Alice is an outsider and disinterested in playing nice with her community; that’s the sort of thing that would bother her neighbors even during regular times, but Alice is the product of Jessica Swale’s “Summerland,” set in the heat of World War II, even if the bombs are falling miles and miles away.

Alice’s isn’t helped by her own disdain for the world around her — “That’s right, we’ve all got to do our bit!,” one neighbor trills as a dagger-eyed Alice uses her ration coupons to buy cigarettes and chocolate, and none for anyone else — but underneath her cold persona runs something else: fear. Armed with a rich, layered performance by Arterton, who plays Alice at two very different periods in her life, “Summerland” offers a satisfying drama about the necessity of being yourself, even as the world around you crumbles.

Swale, best known as a playwright (although her next venture is scripting a film that follows the servants who linger just outside the narrative of Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice,” a great idea), certainly knows her way around intricate plotting. Armed with filmic language, she’s able to transform a somewhat familiar and occasionally soapy narrative into a feature with more than a few surprises. Most of them are even earned.

Arterton’s initially gruff performance is nuanced enough to hint at deeper inner turmoil — the sense that Alice is afraid, rather than fearsome, is delivered through a flick of the eyes, a pause in her speech — which eventually finds its ballast in a series of flashbacks that explain Alice’s demeanor. Those flashbacks, which follow Alice’s ill-fated romance with the luminous Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), are rudely interrupted by the arrival of young London evacuee Frank (an unfussy and sweet Lucas Bond), whom Alice is expected to put up in her lonesome cottage for an unspecified amount of time.

Alice is, of course, the last person to willingly a) hang out with anyone else or b) do something by government mandate, but even she can understand what it’s like to have nowhere else to go. As she and Frank get used to each other — his stay is billed as temporary, but it’s clear where this is going — both of them begin to open up, with Alice toting the kiddo along on fact-finding missions related to her field of study (essentially, finding scientific basis for fairy tales and myths, like the Pagan afterlife from which the film takes its title). Initially freaked out by his new country school, Frank soon makes a friend in the offbeat Edie (Dixie Egerickx) who, much like his new guardian, offers a different paradigm of womanhood.

Set against the disparate backdrops of a charming country village and the lingering horror of war (late in the film, Alice and Frank’s sense of London’s destruction is undone by a shocking visit), “Summerland” still strikes a soothing balance. While Alice’s interest in magic is rooted mostly in undermining it, Swale’s gentle creation allows for the possibility of magic — or, at the very least, good things — to work their way into even the worst of times. A whimsical score from Volker Bertelmann aids immeasurably in that feeling, and even when the film leans toward predictability, the sense of reality melding into fantasy aids in digesting some of the film’s bigger risks.

Swale’s intricate plotting obscures some of the film’s twists (which are some of those aforementioned risks), but all credit to her direction and Arterton’s grounded performance for selling them and keeping them from slipping into pure soap. (Fans of the film should also seek out Lone Scherfig’s “Their Finest,” another Arterton-starrer that focuses on an often-forgotten element of WWII-era survival, which treads a similar line.) While much of what Swale has crafted here is familiar, the film’s loving tone and Arterton’s compelling performance recommend it, and the result is a warm drama never afraid of a little magic.

Grade: B

IFC Films will release “Summerland” on VOD, digital, and in select theaters on Friday, July 31.

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