Stories are all around us. Tales of heroic feats against giant monsters. Fairytales about wicked enchantresses luring sailors to their doom. Mystical places that surround us, veiled from our ordinary eyes. All great tales, passed down throughout the ages, but the ones that resonate the most, no matter how big or small the story, are the stories of love.
In Jessica Swale’s directorial debut, she tells the tale of Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton). Set during World War II, the reclusive woman lives in a small seaside town in Kent, where she endures pestering from children who call her a witch and side-eyes from the townspeople. Alice begrudgingly lives a life of solitude writing her books about the science and truths behind the myths and legends we tell. One day, a young London evacuee, Frank (Lucas Bond), is dropped on her doorstep. Soon after Alice’s tough exterior begins to erode as the kindhearted and curious boy reminds her of a long-forgotten feeling, love.
The picturesque debut has all the usual hallmarks of an English set period drama. No matter the context, England’s seaside locals are naturally a gift for scenic filming locations. The heart of the film however, is in the exquisite performances from leading lady Gemma Arterton, with support from the adorable Lucas Bond, the dazzlingly Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and a brief appearance from the always excellent Penelope Wilton.
Alice Lamb is not an entirely broken person. She is not without a heart, but past pains and hurt has closed her off from reaching out for love and acceptance. Swale’s script and filmmaking expertly crafts a sweet and tender tale of how Alice finds the hope to love again, and to cherish another person who returns those affections.
In a series of flashbacks we see Alice and Mbatha-Raw’s Vera fall quickly in love, but the time and place of their blossoming love is unforgiving and harsh towards the two women. Arterton and Mbatha-Raw deliver performances that could melt the coldest of hearts, and have you weeping at the sorrowful end to their relationship. However, pain and loss are feelings that are slowly diminished as Alice grows to care and love young Frank.
Summerland will grip your heart, having you feel every ounce of Alice’s emotional journey that is perfectly captured by Arterton. To watch her move with ease between executing those sorrowful eyes to convey the depth of Alice’s despair to the vibrant smile that challenges the brightness of the sun, it is a wonder to behold. Mbatha-Raw yet again is a formidable screen presence. She so gracefully waltzes into Alice’s heart and world, so when she is gone the hollow feeling is truly felt. And it should go without saying that Wilton, with all the years of experience that she has had, is as captivating as ever. With the minimal time she has on screen, she knows how to stir your emotions and maybe have you bawling your eyes out with a simple look. Finally, young Bond is the right amount of precocious and does a fine job balancing the innocence and sadness of a child in these circumstances.
The film comes in at under 2 hours, and every moment is chock-full of fine costume and production design, a moving score, excellent performances from the entire ensemble, and a clear example of an exceptionally talented filmmaker behind the lens. Swale’s debut is a rousing success in every regard, with such a clear and focused vision and the ability to get the absolute best from her actors, Swale proves that she has a promising future in film.
Summerland in select theaters and VOD/Digital Platforms July 31